Lonnie is 26, rich, talented and beautiful – with a husband and son to match.
Ella is also 26, but lonely, hungry and far from home.
Their fates intertwine the day Ella is hired as the family’s nanny, and finds herself mesmerised by Lonnie’s girlish affection and disregard for the normal boundaries of friendship and marriage, but soon resentment grows too.
Unreliable narrators often make for fantastic novels. Capable of the most dysfunctional relationships, or intense obsessive friendships, and always with a surface level of dark menace, they make for page-turning and compulsive reading. And, here to scratch the unreliable narrator itch left by last year’s Social Creature, comes Devotion, the debut novel by Los Angeles based author Madeline Stevens.
Ella is young and broke, reduced to hitting up random guys in rundown bars in return for drinks and food. So when she’s able to charm her way into a job working as a nanny for affluent couple Lonnie and James, it’s like a dream come true. Mesmerised by the couple’s Instagram-worthy lifestyle, Ella quickly transforms herself into ‘Elle’, working her way into Lonnie’s confidence and gradually harvesting her home for the secrets that lie behind the glittering facade. But as the boundaries between Elle and Lonnie become ever more blurred, has Ella bitten off more than she can chew by becoming entangled in James and Lonnie’s own marital game?
Formulated as a character study, Devotion is a sharp and sensuous read. Unlike Social Creature, with its loud parties and sharp descent from glamour into madness, Devotion is a quiet exploration of the obsession, malevolence, and jealousy that can lie at the heart of misguided devotion. Ella’s fixation with the seemingly carefree Lonnie is grounded first in jealousy and then in grudging admiration before twisting into something darker, resulting in an obsessive desire to inhabit the life and person of her unknowing employer.
Similarly, Lonnie, the subject of Ella’s obsessive gaze, is also the object of devotion for her husband James and their best friend – and Lonnie’s sometime lover – Carlow. Forever the object and never the subject, Lonnie is kept at a distance from the reader. Instead, she is the canvas onto which the desires of the other characters are painted and realised.
I should mention here that this is not a novel for the faint-hearted. The subject of devotion and obsession is explored on many levels, including within a number of rather vivid sex scenes. In particular, later in the book, there are a couple of scenes that raise issues around rape, consent, and sexual violence that might disturb some readers.
Whilst this wasn’t an issue for me personally reading the novel, it did highlight the weakness in the book for me which is that, however intricate a portrait of dysfunction Devotion paints, I struggled to get a tangible sense of the motivation behind the characters’ desires.
Ella’s jealously I could understand – her life at the start of the novel seems so distant from Lonnie’s, and it is clear that the lifestyle she is introduced into, and Lonnie’s own seemingly carefree demeanour, would be desirable to her. But Ella’s quick descent into some very weird behaviour – stealing mementoes and rooting through Lonnie and James’ personal possessions, suggested a darker psychological cause that was left frustratingly unexplored.
Overall, however, Devotion is a sharply observed study of the different and varied meanings of devotion itself. Covering fascination, love, jealousy, obsession, and desire, it packs a lot into the pages and offers a slow-burn exploration of self-destruction. Whilst I felt the characters occasionally lacked conviction, the novel is packed with malevolent tension, domestic secrets, sensuality, and suspense. And, for those seeking a narrator so unreliable she won’t even admit the truth to herself, Ella/Elle should hit the spot nicely.
My thanks go to Lauren Nicoll from Faber & Faber for inviting me to take part in the blog tour and for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. Please do check out the other tour stops to see what other bloggers thought of the book!