Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home
Nina Stibbe moves to an upscale neighborhood in North London to become a nanny to Mary-Kay Wilmers, a single mother and editor of London Review of Books. She writes home to her sister, Victoria, "Being a nanny is great. Not like a job really. Just like living in someone else's life." Her charges are Mary-Kay's two sons, Sam and Will. Nine-year-old Will is the worrier; it’s 1982, and he’s concerned about nuclear war. Sam is 10 ½ and has some physical disabilities that aren't named. Appearing to take his condition in stride most of the time, he’s a keen observer who seems wise beyond his years.
"This peek into the domestic life of Mary-Kay, her children and their neighbors is quite interesting. Nina's descriptions are simple yet accurate, and readers feel like a fly on the wall."
The neighborhood is a Who's Who of literary and creative types. Alan Bennett, playwright and actor, drops in often, especially at meal time. Nina wrote Victoria that he starred in the long-running and very popular British soap opera “Coronation Street,” but she is incorrect. Jonathan Miller, actor and opera director, is another neighbor whose occupation Nina gets wrong. Eventually, she sorts it all out and comes to really enjoy being in the company of this eclectic group of folks. Her observations and descriptions of the friends and neighbors who come and go from the Wilmers household are fresh and unedited. She writes that Mary-Kay, Sam and William all have basin (bowl) haircuts, Mary-Kay often cusses, and privileged folks don't talk about money. She introduces her charges to Toffos, which Will decides are "just naked Rolos," and describes the men Mary-Kay dates.
Nina's letters to Victoria are full of opinions and bits of conversations about daily life. Nina dyes her plimsoles (sneakers) a greeny-blue in the washer, and then all the laundry seems to be a bit greeny-bluish. She is sent to the Millers to borrow a saw to trim the trunk of the Christmas tree, and the family misplaces it. Bottles of milk arrive regularly on their doorstep, but never a milk bill, even though Mary-Kay reminds the milkman. Meal-time conversations might be about the digestive system, pie fillings, a neighbor's large behind, or how to cuss in German. Children the ages of Sam and Will are keen observers of human nature, and their running commentaries are usually spot-on.
This peek into the domestic life of Mary-Kay, her children and their neighbors is quite interesting. Nina's descriptions are simple yet accurate, and readers feel like a fly on the wall. It would be interesting to dine with the family, even though Nina puts tinned tomatoes in the Hunter's Stew, which Alan Bennett considers a mistake.
Reviewed by Carole Turner on April 24, 2014