If you like dark stories with flawed narrators who go to frightening extremes, Bad Marie, by Marcy Dermansky is for you. As a writer, I learned much from studying the main character, Marie.
After spending 6 years in prison for helping her bank-robbing lover evade the law, Marie is hired by her best friend, Ellen, as a live-in nanny for her toddler daughter, Caitlin. It’s a situation that “would have been humiliating had Marie any ambition in life. Fortunately, Marie was not in any way ambitious.” She drinks whiskey on the job, eats all their food, helps herself to Ellen’s clothing and jewelry, and then seduces Ellen’s husband because Ellen doesn’t appreciate him. After jetting to Paris with him and Caitlin, Marie decides he’s just as worthless, and she kidnaps Caitlin. Marie’s bad behavior continues to spin out of bounds until she reaches a point of no return.
I’ve been carrying “Bad” Marie around with me for a few days now, mulling over how sly, manipulative, self-centered and indulgent she is, and the fact that she also has my empathy. Just enough backstory makes her complex. Her father died in a sailing accident, about which her mother would say, “What kind of piece of shit would do that, get himself killed?” Marie became the neighbor’s charity case, a fact she was painfully aware of, even as she took advantage of it. She grew up believing people get what they deserve. She does bad things because “she was Marie. Jealous and needy. Because she could not help herself.” She also contradicts herself. To some extent, she believes the two-and-a-half-year-old Caitlin, who she adores, is wiser than she is. After all, it only takes a bath to make Caitlin happy. Marie also deludes herself in believing she can replace Caitlin’s mother.
Marie is the kind of reckless, unpredictable character I need for a novel I’d really like to resurrect. I’ve been afraid to take the female protagonist over the top, fearing the reader will not like her. As is, she’s only mildly interesting. But, as an agent once told me, “It’s my impression that readers these days read novels the same way they gawk at accidents. If a car is on the side of the road because it ran out of gas, no one pays attention beyond remarking, ‘jerk.’ It takes a paramedic and two police cars and some crunched cars for rubbernecking and involvement.” That’s Bad Marie all right.
And Marie has convinced me that I need to let go of my worries and make the character in my novel who she needs to be, as well as engaging enough to be deserving of a reader’s attention. I have to trust I will find a way to make her likable, too.