Amanda Bestor-Siegal, THE CARETAKERS

Amanda Bestor-Siegal, THE CARETAKERS

Zibby is joined by Amanda Bestor-Siegal to talk about her debut novel, The Caretakers, which was inspired in part by her experience as an au pair in Paris. The two discuss the social politics of being an au pair, why Amanda chose to tell the story from the six female characters’ perspectives, and the main things she took away from her MFA. Amanda also shares how the loss of her mother inspired her to travel to Paris in the first place and what the TV adaption of this novel will likely look like.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Amanda. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Caretakers.

Amanda Bestor-Siegal: Thank you for having me. It’s so nice to be here.

Zibby: Your book was so, so good. Really good. Amazing writing. I care about these characters so much. I didn’t want it to end. You created a whole entire world, as a good novel should. I was flipping — well, I was online, but flipping through as fast as I could to see what was happening. I didn’t want to flip fast, so I read every page so carefully. It was amazing.

Amanda: Oh, my god, thank you for saying that. This is my first book, so it’s still really new when anybody has even read it at all, let alone liked it. Thank you.

Zibby: You never know what to expect. I read so many books. You just never know. It sounded good, so I knew I wanted to do it. I had read the first couple pages. I was so engrossed right away. Bravo. It was really good.

Amanda: Thank you.

Zibby: Let’s back up. Why don’t you tell listeners what your book is about?

Amanda: The Caretakers is a book about a community of au pairs in a suburb of Paris. The book opens with the death of a child in the community who was reportedly alone at home with his au pair at the time, and so she is arrested. The book then goes back in time. It focuses on six women in the community and their points of view and their relationships with each other. It’s three French women in the town and then three au pairs from the United States. It explores how the miscommunications between these women and the ways that they’re all sort of searching for things that they can’t have, the ways that those desires run up against each other and ultimately have really tragic consequences. It’s really not a whodunit at all. It’s more of a how-dunit or a why-dunit, rather. It’s much more about the psychology of these women and what it means to be a caretaker, especially when you’re not being taken care of yourself.

Zibby: Ooh, so good. I was particular intrigued by Charlotte, who has two kids from a prior marriage and then one child in question from the second marriage, also not a particularly lovely marriage, and the rebellion of the teenage daughter, the tragedy that happens to the older son, how she handles everything, which blew my mind at every turn. She doesn’t have any of the reactions you would expect from a mother or a caretaker, so to speak. Tell me about her character and how you developed it, where we’re supposed to be in her head, all of that stuff.

Amanda: Charlotte was actually the last character to make it into the book as a point-of-view character. For a long time, I was really afraid to be in her head because she’s probably the character who’s the most different from me, psychologically, materially, all these ways. I was scared to make that leap. I’m really glad I did because I think it really pushed me as a writer but also just as human being to think about, as you said, these kinds of reactions that are not necessarily what you would expect from a woman and, specifically, a mother. I think that from came, for me, from — the book as a whole was inspired by — I was working as an au pair in France. I didn’t write this book while I was doing this, but after I was finished. I was thinking a lot about how even in myself I felt like my own reactions towards caretaking, my own competence as a caretaker wasn’t necessarily what I always felt like was expected of me just innately. I felt really incompetent a lot of the time even though I really cared about my children. I felt like, oh, I thought that this kind of ability to take care of people would be just somehow — there must be some feminine instinct. It’ll just come up. It kind of never did. For me, when I was writing about Charlotte, I was thinking a lot about, I’ve had this experience as an au pair. I’m pushing it another step.

I’m really exploring in a lot of ways, what it is to be a mother who loves her children in the way that I think you can’t not but also is not necessarily a mother at her core of who she is. She didn’t plan to be a mother. She’s not particularly good at it in a lot of ways. She tries to compensate for it in the ways that she can. In Charlotte’s case, she’s able to offer this material comfort for her children, this security that she didn’t have growing up. Then in a lot of ways, that’s not actually what her children need the most. That conflict was something I was really interested in as I’m thinking about different kinds of care. There is material care. There’s love and acceptance. There’s different ways that people take care of another one. A lot of the characters in the book are receiving, some more than others, and wanting, some more than others. Charlotte, to me, was really coming from a place of a caretaker who feels lacking in certain areas and tries to compensate in others. In her case, she’s mother to children who are older, who have really strong personalities, really strong needs, really strong desires. They don’t always line up with what Charlotte feels able to give or is even able to really understand from them. They both are just missing each other even though both daughter and mother want so badly to connect with each other.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, the image of the black skirt and the green underwear of the daughter at the dinner part, it’s every parent’s nightmare. I’m like, I’m never buying my daughter another dress ever again. Interestingly, the au pair — I’m so bad with names. The au pair for the family who spends the weekend with , the teacher — is that right?

Amanda: Lou is the au pair.

Zibby: Not Lou. The other one.

Amanda: Alena.

Zibby: Alena. Sorry. Thank you. Alena, when she is staying with the teacher, says, I feel so bad for the families. I feel so bad for the kids. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that I’m here, that I’m an au pair, that I’m going to leave. Then I have to leave the kids back to these crazy families, essentially. She is not sure if there’s even any value to her care and caregiving if she’s just going to leave. What do you do when you’re inside of an ecosystem where, ultimately, you’re plugging a leak for a second? It’s like your finger’s on some sort of leak. You know you’re about to take it off. The water will come flying out again. Talk to me a little about that and her role and her assessment of the family, essentially.

Amanda: I love that image of plugging the leak. It’s not even just that it’s a temporary stoppage. It’s also that next year, you’ll be replaced with a differently sized cork, differently shaped. This was something I felt a lot while au pairing. It’s such an intense experience to really be going primary caretaker for somebody else’s children because you end up spending so much more time with them than their parents do. I think there’s a kind of pressure that comes. I felt this kind of pressure of needing to make these kids into good people. I just felt so responsible for them. At the same time, I’m not their parent. I have one year with them. Then they’ll be raised by somebody else. Even that year, I’m not their mom. There’s such a weird gap there of caring so much about them, but they’re not yours. Ultimately, they are being formed by a family that you live in and you’re so close to. You don’t have a say in so much about how they see the world and how they’re being raised to view people. It’s just really complicated. Alena was a character who, I was definitely exploring that feeling of — she’s somebody who, for her own reasons, is afraid to get too close to things. She’s been very burned by family in the past.

For her, it’s this dance of being really, really intimate with these people and wanting to do that job, be there for those kids, be there in a way that she’s noticing in this particular family that the parents are not, but also recognizing that there’s only so much she can do and that it will be temporary. As somebody who has been abandoned in the past, that’s very painful for her to know that she’s going to do that to somebody else. I think that that’s something that a lot of the au pairs in the book really struggle with. For all of them, for various reasons, part of the reason they’re in France is because they’re searching for some kind of belonging or family or acceptance that ultimately is — even if they can find it, it’s going to be short term. It’s going to be limited. They’re still an employee. There’s so many boundaries around how much they’re actually able to get what they want from that experience. It’s this duality of both the au pair kind of being a child and wanting to be accepted and then also recognizing that in a lot of ways, they’re about to do to the children what they maybe have experienced before. They’re going to leave. What is it to really leave an impact on a child, to try to help raise a child, be there for them, especially if their parents are kind of absent, and then to, in June, “That was my job. Bye”? It’s a complicated thing to grapple with, especially when you’re still really young yourself.

Zibby: I’ve never been an au pair. I’ve never hired an au pair or worked with an au pair as a mother, but I was a mother’s helper for a summer for a family. I didn’t live with them, but I was there every day. I babysat a lot growing up because I love — I still love kids. I gravitated to those types of jobs before I was old enough to have regular jobs. There’s that thing where the more you care for something, you more you love it. Sometimes it is the act of caring for something — this even happens with animals. You form these bonds and attachments sometimes just for the sake of caring. I happened to love the girl I took care of. I’m still in touch with her. She’s wonderful. I’m in touch with the family. You never quite get over that feeling, how you described it as like an interloper. It’s not your family. Yet you have a critical role all of a sudden. Now as a mom when I have to hire people to help with my kids, not as an au pair, I’m so worried. What if somebody, years from now, writes about ? I think I’ve been pretty nice. Everybody’s family is a little bit nuts. Everyone has their idiosyncrasies. Not like these families in your book. My family is not like these families. We’re pretty nice. Anybody coming in from the outside, to see the particularities of a family is just very interesting and makes me nervous.

Amanda: Oh, no. It’s doubly complicated in this case because it’s in another country. You are an interloper in this family, but also in this culture. There’s so much about the way that — my host family was not like the families in the book. I had a really lovely family. They were French. It was fascinating to see. Even just some of the more subtle ways that children are reared and disciplined and all is so different from culture to culture. It is really strange to kind of be in the inside but also this objective observer in some ways. I don’t think you should be worried.

Zibby: No, I’m not. I’m not really worried.

Amanda: It’s sort of an inevitable part of —

Zibby: — I know. Also, when I was a teenager, I lived with a French family for a summer back when I could speak French very well. Now I can barely even form a sentence. That was another way of seeing this girl who was about my age, but she was living in this house in the South of France, and what her life was like. I took French classes in the neighborhood. I feel like I related to the its and bits and pieces, which made the book even more relevant. I was also interested in your depiction of the men in this story. In some ways, they’re supporting characters, but they all have their own issues too, particularly the two neighbors and their relationship with their wives and also how dissatisfied they are. Tell me about the men and how you crafted their characters. Did you think about having a perspective of one of them at all? Men, of course, are caretakers in their own right. Was it only the women? Actually, maybe you should just go back for a second. When you said that that character came last, which I found shocking, who did you start with? How did this whole thing come about? When you began writing, was it always multiple point of view by chapters? Was there ever one narrator? Talk about that for a minute. Then lead up to the men.

Amanda: When I started, I started with Lou, who is the first au pair perspective that we hear from. I did know at the beginning that I was writing something that would have a lot of different points of view. When I first started, I was really focused on the au pairs. At that time, I didn’t necessarily think I was going to have non-au pair points of view. That was one of the big changes as the book grew, was realizing that because the book is so much about miscommunication and people missing each other, it was actually really important to me to have both sides of it, both the family perspectives as well as the au pairs, both American and French. I wanted a balance of those points of view. That was how I landed on these six women in particular. The only male character who I ever even considered writing a point of view from — honestly, even the consideration was pretty brief — was Victor, who is the older brother in the main family we’re with. I love Victor. He’s one of my favorite characters. I just think he’s really complicated and tragic in a lot of ways.

For me, I just made the decision that I did, at least in this particular book — I think there’s a version of this book that has points of view of the fathers as well. I think that would be fascinating. For me, I really was interested in the way that caretaking falls on women specifically, and particularly what that looks like when it falls on women who, for various reasons, are not actually, again, good at it or even know how to do it, whether because of their age or because of their background or their own upbringing. None of the women in this book are great at caretaking, and all for different reasons. That is the thing that I wanted to explore in them. As a result of that, I think the male characters, they are really sidelined. Part of this is because, at least in this world, in this particular community, I think that those caretaking roles are quite gendered. It was something that I really observed when I was in France. It depends on where you are. It’s also really class-based. Especially in that kind of upper-middle-class, high-class society in the suburbs of Paris, I was kind of shocked by how staunch those gender roles were. It made sense to me that focusing on caretaking specifically, I’m really looking at how that affects the women that it just automatically falls to. Victor was the closest I got.

Zibby: There was something almost slightly pathetic about — I feel like the image of the man in that gold Plaza Athénée room as she’s running off, it’s kind of pathetic. You just want to be like, oh, my gosh. It would be really neat if you wrote a sequel that was all the men. That could be interesting.

Amanda: I never thought about doing it until you just asked me this. I’m like, whoa, that would be fascinating.

Zibby: Right? Wouldn’t that be really cool? That would be really neat. Wait, so I feel like I don’t know enough about you. I know you’re in Austin now. I know you were a French au pair. Fill in the rest of your life.

Amanda: I moved to France in my early twenties. Then I ended up spending —

Zibby: — Back up. Where did you grow up?

Amanda: I grew up in Washington, DC. My parents actually met in Paris. They both lived in Paris when they were teenagers and spent many years there. That’s where they met. They both spoke French. Even though I’m not French ancestrally or anything, I grew up very much thinking of Paris as sort of my birthplace in a way. When I was in college, my mom actually passed away right before I graduated. It’s weird looking back because I did not think that was connected to me moving to France and later realized that was a very big part of it. That really was a before-and-after for me in my life where it just completely changed the course of everything that I was doing. I moved to France to au pair originally because I was not processing my grief at all. I just needed to reset. I’d always wanted to live in France. I spoke French. I’d never really spent time there. That was where the move came from, and the au pairing. Then I ended up staying there.

Zibby: Can I ask what happened to your mom? You don’t have to talk about it.

Amanda: She was sick. She had hepatitis. She was very chronically ill. It had been on and off throughout my life. When I was twenty-one, it was a pretty quick — diagnosed in June. Passed away in August. Then I went back to school for my final year. It was traumatic. I got through college because I felt like I had to. When I graduated, I was pretty lost. Again, this all ties in with the book. I was someone who went to France not totally understanding what I was looking for. I didn’t realize until I was there how much I needed from other people and how strange it was to be in this caretaking role when I had just lost my own caretaker and to live in a family when I felt like I no longer had my own. That was so fraught. I didn’t know how long I was going to be there when I lived there. It was very much, everything is bad. I just need to reset. I need to figure out what I’m doing. I need to get away. Then I ended up staying for most of my twenties. I lived in France for about four and a half years. Then I moved to Austin because I did an MFA program. I wanted to have some more time to focus on writing, so I came back to the States. That’s where I am now. I just graduated last year and feel really lucky I happened to fall in love with Austin. For a long time, I thought I might just stay in France. I loved it there, but it’s complicated. I think it’s complicated when you move to a place to kind of run from or process grief. In a lot of ways, Paris is home to me, but it’s also a very painful home, if that makes sense.

Zibby: It’s almost like Lou when the teacher asks, don’t you have anybody you need to call? She was like, no. It’s like that moment. Who am I supposed to call when I’m lost? When your goes away, it’s that same feeling I feel like she had. Maybe not.

Amanda: It’s like the irony of, I’m here because I have no one to call. I’ve come all this distance because there’s nobody. So many au pairs do not have stories like that. There’s plenty of people who are just taking a gap year, want to learn a language, want to be exposed to another culture. For me and a lot of the people that I was drawn to, a lot of the other young women I was drawn to, there were quite a few of us who had these really before-and-after crisis moments that led us to do this thing that we hadn’t really processed. That’s kind of why we were there. When you add that element of, and you’re also supposed to be this authority figure and taking care of someone when you’re basically a child and you’re still grappling with your own lack of care, it just gets so complicated, and especially for a place like Paris which is so idealized. There’s this big idea that you’ll find yourself. You’ll become someone different. Even with my family history with Paris, I still had this very idealized view of what would happen to me there. It ended up changing my life, but not in the ways I expected. It really forced me to actually deal with grief in a way that I was trying to run from, ultimately. I think that’s where a lot of the au pair characters came from for me.

Zibby: Did you write this as part of your MFA?

Amanda: I actually most wrote of it while I was in France. I worked as an au pair that first year. I didn’t write at all. I was just living it. Then I started to write it after I finished that job. I had almost finished by the time I started my MFA, but the MFA really — my program, it’s almost more like a fellowship. At UT Austin, we end up only having nine hours of class a week. We don’t have to teach. We’re on a big fellowship every year. It gave me the chance to just finish the book in a way that I did not have time in France. Also, while I was living in France, I was getting so many ideas all the time. It was so stimulating. The book just kept growing and growing. In some ways, I think being back in the States and kind of cutting off the inspiration pipeline also allowed me to finish. It forced to me to sort of time capsule it and let it be, let it just be done. I finished it during the MFA.

Zibby: Did the MFA help you get an agent and sell it and everything? Give me the one-minute version of that story of how it sold.

Amanda: Yeah, kind of. My program was three years. I finished the book the summer between my second and third year and ended up — I had a really fairy-tale experience. This is not the standard of what to expect. I queried agents in September and ended up signing and selling the book within a month. It was a ridiculously fairy tale — that was my final year at school. That final year was kind of weird. I was like, I don’t really know what I’m doing anymore. I did it. I did the thing. For me, it was mostly really, COVID lit this fire under my butt. COVID hit my second year. It really was this, oh, god, we’re all going to graduate in this. There’s no jobs. We basically were forced to graduate early mentally. I hadn’t planned on sending my book out that early, but I did because I panicked. I was just like, I have to start doing something before I graduate. The MFA, it doesn’t literally give you an agent or anything like that.

Zibby: No, I know.

Amanda: Even being able to just have that community to talk to and get recommendations for who to query and how to query, it was really helpful. My agent, who’s wonderful, is somebody who I queried because she represented another author I love.

Zibby: Who is your agent, by the way?

Amanda: Suzanne Gluck at WME. I really, really love Julia Phillips. Disappearing Earth, that’s another book that’s — it’s interested in similar themes. I just looked up who her agent was and queried her agent. That worked out amazingly well.

Zibby: By the way, I like your cover a lot, but did you ever think about doing the singed flower from the flower bed?

Amanda: Yes. That’s hilarious you’re saying that. We actually talked about that. My editor and the marketing team, fairly, were like, “There’s a lot of flowers on covers. There’s just a lot of them. Maybe we should –” Yeah, as far as images go, I do like — obviously, the book’s about taking care of children, but there’s a lot of imagery in there about plants as well and just other ways we mess up living things. There’s definitely some violence against flowers in the book.

Zibby: Do you have another book in the works?

Amanda: I do, yeah. I can’t say too much about it, but I’m working on it.

Zibby: What about a film adaptation? Is that in the works of this one?

Amanda: Yes. It’s actually a TV adaptation. It’s still very, very early stages, but there is a team working on it. I think the idea is a limited miniseries sort of thing kind of like Big Little Lies. It’s a contained story, but there is space if it ever wanted to extend. That world, all the au pairs, the fact they change over every year lends itself to future stories.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m so excited. I’m really excited. I am so glad I read this book. I am very excited to recommend it far and wide. You’re such a great talent. You’re so young. I can’t wait to see what you do. It’s really cool. It’s just very inspiring. It’s great to open a book and see all this great talent and intrigue. It was just really cool. It was great. I’m really excited for you.

Amanda: Thank you. Thank you so much for reading it and for having me on the podcast too. This was wonderful.

Zibby: I’m really happy. It was great, really great. Thank you.

Amanda: Have a wonderful rest of your day.

Zibby: You too. Thanks for the early-morning podcast.

Amanda: Of course.

Zibby: Take care. Best of luck. Buh-bye.

Amanda Bestor-Siegal, THE CARETAKERS

THE CARETAKERS by Amanda Bestor-Siegal

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