Devotion by Madeline Stevens
Published by Faber
Available from all good online and high street Bookshops
What Is Devotion All About?
Desire. Deception. Destruction. Devotion.
Ella is 26, lonely, hungry and far from home. Lonnie is also 26, but rich, talented and beautiful – with a husband and son to match.
Their fates intertwine the day Ella is hired as the family’s nanny. She finds herself mesmerised by Lonnie’s girlish affection and disregard for the normal boundaries of friendship and marriage, but soon resentment grows too.
Crackling with sensuality and suspense, Madeline Stevens’s debut novel is a dizzying thriller in which roles are confused and reversed and nothing is ever quite as it seems.
What Do I Think About Devotion?
“I’d wanted too much from her, wanted to conquer her, to become her, to encase her in my life in order to write her out of her own.”
I have realised as I have got more and more into book blogging, that there are definitely some types of novel I am always attracted to. One of those is any novel that features an unreliable female narrator.
Devotion is exactly this. A novel about a woman called Ella who longs to be exactly like her employer, to have her life, her world, her husband. To seamlessly glide into Lonnie and James’ life and become everything to both of them. Ella is driven by her desire to consume the world around her and become the one thing they cannot live without.
Right from the start of the novel we are aware of two things – that Lonnie is no longer with James, and that Ella’s former life is one of little money and scant recognition. Daily she has to make choices about how she spends the little money she has, and her life is really a mundane hand to mouth existence.
Ella makes up a resume and invents a past which impresses Lonnie and is her entry to the world she wants to inhabit. It is done easily and without many reservations, and sets the precedent for Ella’s behaviour for the rest of the novel.
For Ella, to be a nanny to a woman who is the same age, and has all this wealth at her fingertips without any care or conscience is something that both fascinates and angers Ella.
Her desire and devotion to Lonnie and James, means that she doesn’t just want to work for them, she wants to be right at the heart of their marriage, to know everything about them. It is however, Lonnie who becomes the object of Ella’s obsession. As the nanny to their child William, this gives Ella the perfect opportunity to search through their house, to read Lonnie’s diary, to sneak peaks at her photo albums, and even to take little items like a worthless ring, and wear it right in front of Lonnie.
What works so well about Devotion is the way in which nothing is as it appears. Even though Lonnie and James appear to be the ultimate Insta-perfect couple, all is not what it seems, and Ella discovers that Lonnie is having an affair with Carlow, James’ best friend. No one is above suspicion, no one is blameless, and you feel that Lonnie and James’ world may sparkle, but that it lacks any sort of real emotional depth.
As Ella manages to inveigle her way into Lonnie’s world, the lines between Employer and Employee merge, and the two women become far more involved than is at all appropriate. The physical similarities between Lonnie and Ella add a disorientating quality to the book – at times you are not sure where Ella ends and Lonnie starts. Ella is finding herself increasingly attracted to Lonnie, but she also craves to be Lonnie so deeply, she attempts to seduce both James and Carlow.
Little by little, Madeline Stevens starts to blur reality and fiction, which is most evident when Lonnie, Ella and William head to an Artist’s retreat. Isolated, away from all the norms and conventions that they usually live by, Lonnie and Ella are free to be whoever they choose. It is there that Lonnie convinces Ella to become her, to wear her clothes, adopt her mannerisms, all in an attempt by Lonnie to allegedly play a prank on the pompous course leader.
Devotion is constantly filled with sensous images of food and eating, of wealth and decadence and it is a clever and subtle way of drawing you closer to the story. I felt it brought me closer to Lonnie and James’ world, to understanding why Ella falls so utterly under their spell.
All the while, as a reader, you are aware of a slow, burning tension between all the characters. We already know that Lonnie is nowhere to be seen at the the start of the novel, and that Ella and Lonnie are increasingly one and the same. The world around them, and for us seems to take on an ethereal quality, where rules and boundaries are merged and lines are crossed without consequence.
For me, seeing Ella trying to find her way into a world which only values her as the Nanny, was a clever and taut plot device which added to the simmering resentment you sense that Ella has for the privileged, but also the realisation that she yearns to be part of this world too.
When Lonnie and James go to visit Lonnie’s father, taking Ella to help look after William, Lonnie’s father makes it very clear what he thinks about Ella and her position in the family. From here on in, Devotion takes on an even darker tone, and we realise that James is far from the debonair and charming husband we may have believed. The novel slides towards a very unsettling and disturbing climax, disorientating and almost other worldly in its hazy and unsteady resolution.
One thing is certain, that no one will ever be the same again.
Devotion is a clever, sharply satirical and unsettling novel, that perfectly captures the contradiction of wanting everything, but ultimately having to lose yourself in the process. It shows us how easy it is to be beguiled by a world we believe we need to be part of, but that belonging comes at a heavy price for Ella. Devotion makes us realise that those without are regarded as a fair currency for those with much more privilege to do exactly what they want with – irrespective of the cost.
Thank you as always to Lauren Nicoll at Faber for my copy of Devotion in exchange for an honest review.
Author Madeline Stevens.
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