“I love Paris in the spring”, sang Ella Fitzgerald, and why not? A glass of wine in a cafe, flowers and budding trees along the Seine, the Eiffel Tower before the summer crowds take over – and perhaps the prospect of love itself, especially if you are young, foreign and delighted with the idea of living in France.
But in “The Caretakers” (William Morrow/Harper Collins), the debut novel by a young writer tied to the Valley, Paris and its surrounding suburbs are a more complicated place, not quite in keeping with the romantic image of the Valley. City of Lights.
In writing “The Caretakers,” an Amazon Best Book of April, Amanda Bestor-Siegal drew on her own experience living in and around Paris for four years, including working as an au pair, to create a suspenseful story that examines class differences, the challenges of working and living in a foreign country, and the strange situation young women face when caring for the children of well-to-do parents: living with families without really being part of them.
Bestor-Siegal grew up in Washington, DC, and now lives in Texas, where she earned an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. But over the past few summers she has written much of her novel in Hadley, where her father now lives.
Some of his family ties here go back decades; his late grandfather, Charles Bestor, was a composer and head of the music and dance department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
In a recent telephone interview, Bestor-Siegal joked that she wanted to give “a big shout out” to Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery in Hadley, which gave her a quiet, steady place to write for hours while she was visiting her father, who lives nearby. When Barstow’s was closed for a while during the pandemic, she walked to the top of Mount Holyoke and wrote in the picnic area, or she wrote in the barn on the neighboring property of the Thayers, the cousins of his father.
“I started writing the book around 2015 when I was living in France, but a lot of it was finished in Hadley,” she said.
“The Caretakers” centers on six main characters: three American au pairs working in Maisons-LaRue, a somewhat arrogant suburb of Paris; a Frenchwoman, Charlotte Chauvet, who employs one of the au pairs, Alena, and has a strained relationship with her children; Nathalie, Charlotte’s lonely and depressed teenage daughter; and Géraldine, a French teacher who leads a class for au pairs.
One of the book’s strengths is that few of the characters, at first glance, seem particularly likable. Yet, as Bestor-Siegal develops their voices and brings their stories to light through a cross-cutting, well-paced narrative, his characters become more likable and their actions more understandable.
The novel opens on a shocking note: Charlotte’s young son Julien, who is in Alena’s care, dies suddenly at home, and the police take Alena away in handcuffs. Neighbors watch as Charlotte, who has always been very keen to keep up appearances, lies collapsed in her beautiful front yard as her son’s body is carried away on a stretcher. An unspoken thought seems to hang in the air: “This is what happens when you don’t raise your own children.”
From there, Bestor-Siegal unravels her story and the mystery of Julien’s death, creating well-drawn portraits of American au pairs, including Lou, a damaged young woman who covers her doubt and pain with a live-for. -the- moment of bravado which includes getting drunk regularly during off hours; Holly, who is in love with the idea of living in France but struggles to bond with anyone there; and the enigmatic Alena, who seems determined to keep everyone at bay.
Charlotte, who comes across as a chilly social climber, has darkness in her past that she’s determined to escape from, even if it means a mostly loveless second marriage to a slug of a man with little interest in people. children. And Geraldine, who is trying to help au pairs settle in France, is nursing her own heartbreak: a failed marriage to an American who is now back in the United States with their daughter, an 11-year-old who became more and more distant with her. during his return visits to France.
What the characters share is a desire for a sense of connection that always seems out of reach. Geraldine, who had invited a seemingly troubled Alena to stay in her apartment for a few nights before Julien died, recalls how Alena pushed her away when she asked the au pair if she had any issues with the Chauvet family. “The memory of that still haunts her. How people close to each other, eyes closed like shops at night.
In an interview, Bestor-Siegal said she felt somewhat disconnected when, a few years out of college, she moved to France in 2014 at age 24 to live and work as an au pair. Her mother died in her senior year of college, she said, and although she worked in New York for a few years after college – she studied architecture at the University from Princeton and also wrote – she felt adrift.
“I decided I needed a reset,” she said. “I wanted to visit France, and I thought [working as an au pair] would be an affordable way to do it. I figured I would do it for a year and then see where I got to.
She notes that France appealed because her parents had met there when they were students in study abroad programs, when she was studying French and had herself spent part of summer in Paris as an undergraduate student: “I felt like home.”
Bestor-Siegal says she lucked into a good job in a suburb just outside Paris, working for a cute couple with children aged 3 and 5. The parents only wanted her to speak French to their children – some French parents specifically request American au pairs, she points out, because they want their children to have early exposure to English – and Bestor-Siegal was happy to immerse themselves in French.
Still, being an au pair “is really complicated in many ways,” she said. There was the language barrier: even as she became more able to understand spoken French, she said, “It was a real challenge this first year to express myself” in the language. Plus, there was the awkward dynamic, she says, of being part of the family but also, as a low-level employee, of standing apart.
And Bestor-Siegal could never forget the enormous responsibility she had been given to care for children “by people who really didn’t know me.” I was sometimes afraid of their fragility and how I would keep them safe.
Once, on the way home from school with the children, the youngest “threw a tantrum and ran into the street”, she said. “There was a bus coming and I had a 5 year old in my other hand. Luckily nothing happened, but it was so scary.
All of this, plus her experience of meeting other au pairs and hearing their stories, became part of “The Caretakers”, which also incorporates the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people and injured more than 400, and that Bestor-Siegal survived. In one scene, Holly and Lou huddle under a table in a crowded, locked cafe as the attacks unfold – and Holly, strangely, suddenly feels like she’s finally part of France.
Bestor-Siegal had several jobs in and around Paris, including teaching English, after being an au pair, a sometimes hectic but always memorable existence, and she became quite fluent in French by the time she his departure. Returning in particular to this first year, she declares: “It was the easiest period of my life to make friends… I miss France.
She is currently working on her second novel – the one she will probably take with her on her next visit to the valley. “It’s a good place to write,” she said.
More information on “The Caretakers” can be found at amandabestorsiegal.com.
Steve Pfarrer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.