Longing for connection: In her debut novel, author with Valley ties explores the inner worlds of caretakers

  • “The Caretakers” is the debut novel of Amanda Bestor-Siegal, who Publishers’ Weekly says “excels at character development. Once the author gets going, she cracks open an intriguing world.”

  • Amanda Bestor-Siegal, author of “The Caretakers,” grew up in Washington, D.C. but has many family ties to the Valley and wrote much of the novel in Hadley. CONTRIBUTED/AMANDA BESTOR-SIEGAL

  • The cafe life: In “The Caretakers,” the young au pairs flock to Paris to try and soak up the experience of being in France, but they find that connections can be elusive. Image from Wikipedia/Robobby

Staff Writer
Published: 5/27/2022 5:09:10 PM
Modified: 5/27/2022 5:07:14 PM

‘I love Paris in the springtime,” Ella Fitzgerald once sang, 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’re young, foreign, and thrilled with the idea of living in France.

But in “The Caretakers” (William Morrow/Harper Collins), the debut novel of a young writer with Valley ties, Paris and its surrounding suburbs is a more complicated place, not quite in keeping with the romantic image of the City of Light.

In writing “The Caretakers,” an Amazon Best Book of April, Amanda Bestor-Siegal has drawn 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 in caring for the children of well-to-do parents: living with families but not really being a part of them.

Bestor-Siegal grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Texas, where she received an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. But over the past several summers, she wrote a good chunk of her novel in Hadley, where her father now lives.

Some of her family connections here go back decades; her late grandfather, Charles Bestor, was a composer and head of the Department of Music and Dance at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

In a recent phone 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 regular, quiet place to write for hours while she was visiting her father, who lives nearby. When Barstow’s was closed for a stretch during the pandemic, she hiked to the top of Mount Holyoke and wrote in the picnic area, or she’d write in the barn on the nearby property of the Thayers, her father’s cousins.

“I first started writing the book about 2015, when I was living in France, but a lot of it was finished in Hadley,” she said.

“The Caretakers” is centered on six major characters: three American au pairs working in Maisons-LaRue, a somewhat snooty suburb of Paris; a French woman, Charlotte Chauvet, who employs one of the au pairs, Alena, and has a strained relationship with her children; Charlotte’s lonely and depressed teenage daughter, Nathalie; and Géraldine, a French teacher who runs a class for the au pairs.

One of the book’s strengths is that few of the characters, at first blush, seem particularly likable. Yet as Bestor-Siegal develops their voices and sheds light on their histories through a cross-cutting, well-paced narrative, her characters become more sympathetic and their actions more understandable.

The novel opens on a shocking note: Charlotte’s young son, Julien, who’s under Alena’s care, has died suddenly at home, and police lead Alena away in handcuffs. Neighbors watch as Charlotte, who has always been very concerned about keeping up appearances, lies crumpled in her beautiful front yard while her son’s body is borne off on a stretcher. An unspoken thought seems to hover in the air: “This is what happens when you don’t raise your own children.”

From there, Bestor-Siegal unfolds her story and the mystery of Julien’s death, creating well-drawn portraits of the American au pairs, including Lou, a damaged young woman who covers her self-doubt and pain with a live-for-the-moment bravado that includes regularly getting drunk during her off hours; Holly, who’s in love with the idea of living in France but struggles to bond with anyone there; and the enigmatic Alena, who seems intent at keeping everyone at arm’s length.

Charlotte, who appears a chilly social climber, has darkness in her past that she’s bent on escaping from, even if that means a mostly loveless second marriage to a slug of a man who takes little interest in the children. And Géraldine, who tries to help the au pairs settle into life in France, nurses her own sorrow: a failed marriage with an American who’s now back in the states with their daughter, an 11-year-old girl who’s become increasingly distant with her on her visits back to France.

What the characters share is a longing for some sense of connection that always seems out of reach. Géraldine, who’d invited a seemingly troubled Alena to stay at her apartment for a few nights before Julien’s death, recalls how Alena had brushed her off when she asked the au pair if she was having problems with the Chauvet family: “The memory of it still haunts her. How people close themselves off to one another, eyes shuttering like shops at night.”

To live in France

In an interview, Bestor-Siegal said she’d been feeling somewhat disconnected herself when, a few years out of college, she went to France in 2014 at age 24 to live and work as an au pair. Her mother died during her last year in college, she said, and though she’d worked in New York City for a few years after college — she studied architecture at Princeton University and also did some writing — she felt adrift.

“I decided I need 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’d do it for a year and then see where I was.”

She notes that France appealed because her parents had met there as college students doing study abroad programs, while she studied French and had spent part of a summer in Paris herself as an undergraduate: “It just felt like home to me.”

Bestor-Siegal says she lucked into a good situation in a suburb just outside Paris, working for a nice couple with children ages 3 and 5. The parents only wanted her to speak French to their children — some French parents specifically request American au pairs, she notes, because they want their children to have early exposure to English — and Bestor-Siegal was happy to immerse herself in French.

Yet being an au pair “is really complicated in a lot of ways,” she said. There was the language barrier: Even as she became better able to understand spoken French, she said, “It was a real challenge that first year to express myself” in the language. In addition, there was the awkward dynamic, she says, of being part of the family but also, as a low-level employee, standing apart from it.

And Bestor-Siegal could never forget the huge responsibility she’d been entrusted with to care for the children “by people who really didn’t know me. I was scared at times at how fragile they were and how I would keep them safe.”

Once, returning home from school with the children, the younger one “had a temper tantrum and ran away from me into the street,” she said. “There was a bus coming, and I had a 5-year-old in my other hand. Fortunately, nothing happened, but it was so scary.”

All of this, plus her experience 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 which Bestor-Siegal lived through. In one scene, Holly and Lou huddle under a table in a crowded, locked-down cafe as the attacks unfold — and Holly, strangely, suddenly feels she’s finally part of France.

Bestor-Siegal worked a number of jobs in and around Paris, including teaching English, after serving as an au pair, a sometimes hectic existence but still a memorable one, and she became pretty fluent in French by the time she left. Looking back in particular at that first year, she says, “It was the easiest time in my life to make friends … I miss France.”

She’s now working on her second novel — one she’ll probably take with her when she next visits the Valley. “It’s a good place to write,” she said.

More information about “The Caretakers” is available at amandabestorsiegal.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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