[The Governesses is] a rawboned little story — a novella, really — prim and racy, seriously weird and seriously excellent; a John Waters sex farce told with the tact and formality of a classic French fairy tale ... There’s an energy here that recalls The Virgin Suicides — a story building around surveilled women. Mark Hutchinson’s splendid and sensitive translation sets the mood; he has a talent for the off-kilter adjective that first startles us and later explains so much ... The Governesses is not a treatise but an aria, and one delivered with perfect pitch: a minor work, defiantly so, but the product of a significant talent.
Anne Serre has written a self-contained novella in which she plays a delightful docente—a friendly narrator pointing out small treasures for us to marvel at. Her voice is playful, gossipy, and indulgent. She is both charming and charmed. But her story lacks a traditional structure which, predictably, hurts the overall pacing of the story. This is a very short book with very little plot. So voice, and every word choice which contributes to it, matters ... The Governesses seems to invite all the obvious—too obvious—comparisons to The Virgin Suicides ... But, in truth, there is no similarity. Instead, Serre’s tale has more in common with Vanity Fair ... whether there’s a method or a moral to Anne Serre’s tale, who can say? The allegorical fable by its nature lends itself to visually striking imagery like no other literary form. This is exactly what Serre places before her readers—a visual feast, a cabinet of curiosities, a long gallery filled with self-contained dioramas for us to stroll past and admire. Serre tells a tale meant to bewitch and delight her audience for a finite duration ... She succeeds brilliantly on every count, demonstrating both exceptional clarity of tone and agility of invention.
Serre’s language is tight and fabulist, a slim and sensuous fairy tale that reads like something born from an orgy between Charles Perrault, Shirley Jackson, and Angela Carter (hubba hubba). For the most part, the narrative voice of the novel views the governesses with bemused detachment, just like the elderly gentleman across the street who spies on them regularly through a telescope. The narrative is similarly telescopic, often projecting one perceived emotion onto all three of them, particularly their libidinous desires, with puerile pluralism ... The governesses of The Governesses are a tragedy, as they never escape the confines of their archetype, their one-ness, their cipher-dom ... They are not just robbed of agency; any glimmer of agency is categorically, mercilessly nixed.
Surreal and erotic, Anne Serre’s writing explores woman’s powers, potency, and regions of femininity. Her writing advances notions of women’s sexual pleasure and produces a portrait of feminine consciousness that rejects a classic understanding of womanhood. She does not write in platitudes, nor does she dig up worn-out fairytales of women to depict the intimate lives of her governesses. Instead, Serre’s writing is shaped by a forceful return of a female libido that refuses to be put down and yearns to exist outside culture’s preconceptions. In her book, Serre finds language to describe women that is savage and yet makes itself understood. Even if the governesses do not succeed in carving out their own space in the Austeur mansion, their story warns of a downfall women face when they become complacent in reductive gender roles. In Serre’s economic writing, there is a need to decipher what cannot be said, what is expressed implicitly yet nonetheless arouses the desire for words: that is the drama of The Governesses.
At times, [The Governesses] recalls Karen Russell’s blends of the everyday and the fantastical; at others, the juxtaposition of the pastoral and the sinister echoes Gene Wolfe’s Peace ... this is a work that’s propelled more by its tone and telling than it is for the events that comprise its story ... The conclusion of the novel ties in a distinctly bizarre series of events, even by the standards of this book, to the presence of this most male of male gazes. The utterly disquieting effects of this gaze’s absence suggest a range of metaphorical interpretations of the narrative that has just concluded. Whether this a tale of witchcraft in an opulent landscape, an uncanny story of a collective mind, or a surreal account of desire and obsession, Serre’s imagery and tone create a world that’s hard to forget.
Each sentence evokes a dream logic both languid and circuitous as the governesses move through a fever of domesticity and sexual abandon. Serre works in fairy-tale archetypes, but she subverts them, too ... This is a fascinating fable about marriage, longing, and sexual awakening—about what can happen within the walls of a house when the barriers between nature and domesticity are stretched to their breaking points. A sensualist, surrealist romp.
Serre’s first work to be translated into English is a hypnotic tale ... Austeur [the governesses employer] ... provides a sense of order to counterbalance [the governesses'] chaos, and indeed, the same could be said about the work’s steely prose ... Serre’s wistful ode to pleasure is as enchanting as its three nymph-like protagonists.