Devotion: A Novel by Madeline Stevens

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Did I have a suspicion that she might not be real? Was I grasping for evidence?

Devotion, more the mask of it, tells the story of Ella’s envy for Lonnie, whom has hired her as Nanny for her sixteen-month old son, William. Hungry and broke, this is a step up from wondering where her next meal will come from, no more would she have to be a smiling fool (hostess), suffer part time jobs girls with an unfinished college education migrate to, sleep with rough older men just for a meal, now she would know how the privileged lived. It isn’t long before Ella is caught up in the magnetism that Lonnie exudes, simply by existing. She doesn’t yet know Lonnie is hungry too, but for some elusive thing that her abundant life can’t seem to give her. Nor can her husband James.

Ella studies the nature of Lonnie with a keen eye, it’s almost scientific, from how she smells, the nuances of her beautiful face, the carelessness of her impulses (the first being hiring Ella in an act of blind faith), the magnetism that draws everyone into her orbit. Why she begins writing everything down about her days spent in the home, she cannot say. Stealing objects that would never be missed, as if taking pieces of Lonnie and her glorious life with her could rub off on Ella, make her own less mediocre. Watching… always watching.

With husband James by her side they make the perfect couple, and how can someone who struggles just to keep a roof over their head and crumbs in their belly not resent such easy wealth? Not feel jealous of the freedom to ‘dabble’ in her talents the way Lonnie does? How can Ella do anything other than be seduced by every bit of Lonnie  just like everyone else? She’s looking, she’s trying to find the cracks. She doesn’t fully believe anyone can be this perfect, this happy, right?

Upon meeting family friend Carlow, she notes the desire he feels for Lonnie smoldering in his eyes and it dawns on her that maybe Lonnie has some things to hide. Lines between friendship and hired help blur as Lonnie confides in Ella, welcomes her into the circle, urges her to emulate her even. At times, it seems Lonnie would cast off her skin and let Ella walk off in it, anything to be free of all her blessings, privilege. When she and Carlow escape into a room upon his visits, when James is away at work, it is unspoken that Ella won’t say anything, will be the keeper of her betrayal. She can’t blame her, attracted to Carlow herself, longing for a taste, to know what it feels like to be wanted as much as Lonnie.

Lonnie misses her carefree days, when she had the freedom to “do things”, not like her life now, motherhood, being a wife,  just stuck here in the brownstone bored.  She has to  grab for the thrills when they present themselves and Ella is someone she can have fun with. Both being motherless , in a sense, and the same age they find a common bond, but their worlds are wildly different, that of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. The things Lonnie seems to innately know make Ella feel inferior, are the wealthy just born knowing how to navigate the world? It doesn’t matter if Ella slips on Lonnie’s clothes, or kisses the same men, she will never belong, never be able to emanate whatever it is the gives Lonnie her allure.

It is when the women travel to an artists’ retreat, staying in a cabin on a lake in the Adirondacks that Lonnie really lets loose and tries on a different role for size, that of the help. It’s all fun and games, but makes Ella all the more aware of the vast divide between them. There is some sort of sadness, some nameless thing lurking beneath Lonnie’s surface that troubles her. At times silly and playfully childish, as when they play with a Ouija board, and other times sullen, distant.  As closely as Ella has studied her subject, she doesn’t understand anything. Lonnie uses her, but so too does she use Lonnie. She isn’t exactly the loyal subject a seemingly spoiled princess demands. She has reckless moments, many of which Ella wants wants nothing more than to be a part of, anything to escape sober reality. It’s so much easier to bury herself in this life of effortless pleasures. She doesn’t want it to end, to go back to her dull life.

Ella is getting too involved in the couple’s marriage, and lines will be crossed that she can’t come back from. Lonnie scares her with how careless she can be, and she doesn’t know how to help her, if she even should. She is starting to feel like she will be cast off at some point, and it would mean nothing to Lonnie,  to people like her it never does. At turns attentive, caring and a second later envious, jealously imagining she could easily eclipse Lonnie’s talents “if only I’d had the time and resources.” There is a competitive beast within many female friendships, more so when one has so much more power.

No one likes those who encroach on their privacy, the rich even less. Lonnie isn’t as together as she seems, in the end she may surprise even Ella.

The novel was engaging, everyone is self-destructing in their own special way, but I hoped for more from the ending. I felt I was left adrift, wondering… okay, now what? Much like Ella.

Publication Date: August 13, 2019

Harper Collins

Ecco

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