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The East African : May 5th 2014
The EastAfrican MAGAZINE MAY 3-9,2014 books Lite≥a≥y lives laid ba≥e by the nanny The cove≥ suggests a book that’s t≥ying too ha≥d to be ado≥able, but as it tu≥ns out, Love, Nina is indeed cha≥ming, w≥ites DWIGHT GARNER I do judge books by their covers, sometimes, and the one on Love, Nina made me place it in the “probably not” pile. Its bright watercolour artwork (children, bicycle, vaguely European street scene) suggests a book that’s trying too hard, in the Peter Mayle vein, to be adorable. The subtitle, A Nanny Writes Home, doesn’t dispel this impression. Here, you think, is a book that wants to throttle you with its charm, as if intended to appeal to the owners of bookstores that mostly stock potpourri, clip-on reading lamps and complicated bookmarks. Mea maxima culpa. It turns out that Love, Nina is indeed charming, but only in the best ways. It’s observant, funny, terse, at times a bit rude. It affords a glimpse into a rarefied London social and literary milieu. It’s an Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey of sorts, set not in a manor house but in the genteel bohemian home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, the longtime editor of The London Review of Books. Nina Stibbe was 20 in 1982, when she was hired by Wilmers to be the nanny to her young sons, Will and Sam. Wilmers was a single mother; her sons were the product of her marriage to the film director Stephen Frears, which had ended in divorce. Stibbe moved to London from Leicestershire to take the position. She missed her sister, Victoria, who worked in a nursing home. So the two began exchanging letters. The author’s side of this correspondence, written from 1982 to 1987, makes up the entirety of Love, Nina. These letters are winning from the start. Stibbe describes being a nanny as “not like a job really, just like living in someone else’s life.” She quickly realises that she’s come to live with one of those families whose daily life has a bit of unfussy magic in it. The Wilmers house is art-filled. Everyone is amusing and curses a lot. Evenings are spent flipping through dictionaries and arguing about, for example, whether “brim” is a better word than “flank” and “how to offend — in III Commuters queue for buses at London’s Victoria Station on February 5. Below: The cover of the book Love, Nina Pictures: AFP/NYT German and English.”This is the kind of book in which a pair of cheap curtains are likely to be described as “very ‘Mike Leigh.’” Neighbours and friends are constantly dropping by, notably Alan Bennett, the playwright and London Review diarist, who seems to arrive every other night for dinner, and Claire Tomalin, the biographer and journalist. Stibbe was not much of a cook when she arrived in London. Many of the best bits in her letters detail her running battles with Bennett, “AB” in this volume, over how best to prepare a variety of dishes. The author often gives us verbatim dialogue, such as: AB: Very nice, but you don’t really want tinned tomatoes in a beef stew. ME: It’s a Hunter’s Stew. AB: You don’t want tinned tomatoes in it, whoever’s it is. Wilmers, “MK” here, seems like a somewhat warmer version of Miranda Priestly, the imperious magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada. She’s skinny; she smokes; she brings her floppy-haired boyfriends around; she stares at the ceiling when she wants to let you know you’re being an idiot. She loathes platitudes. Sti- bbe says, “I remember once, in 1982, asking MK if she’d had a nice weekend and I could see it didn’t go down well so never asked again.” When a friend presents Wilm- ers with wind chimes said to ward off bad spirits, she doesn’t Love, Nina Book: Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home Author: Nina Stibbe Pages: 320 Publisher: Little, Brown and Co Price: $25 want them, Stibbe says, because “(a) she doesn’t like tinkling noises and (b) she’s not 100 per cent anti bad spirits.” Some of the better moments in this epistolary memoir involve discussions of sex, most of which are more or less unprintable here. When Stibbe catches Will and Sam watching a bit of porn on video, even its title is oddly winsome: Best Bit of Crumpet Out of Denmark. Mostly, though, we simply like being in Stibbe’s company. She comes to realise why so many mothers are “cold and annoyed” — it’s from walking around in supermarkets. She won’t do yoga because “I might not do so well as a relaxed person.” There’s an element of Shaw’s Pygmalion in the way she is slowly indoctrinated into the family’s upper-middle-class mores. When she arrives, she has never heard the word syllabus. Soon she is studying for her college entrance exams. At the library, she gets a “re- cording of a bloke reading Chaucer in the Old English.” This is so hard on her ears that she writes, “Nearly wet myself listening.” She declares, “MK says the secret is to get it (Chaucer) — you don’t have to like it.” I enjoyed her take on fiction in the United States: “When you read American fiction you get to accept all sorts of names that were unthinkable before. Dick, Frank, Milo, Chuck, Micky, Dick, Biff, Willie, Gullie, Happy, Augie, Fritz, Artie, Woody, Rocky, Bill.” (This bit is linked to her observation that most men’s names sound like penises or toilets or worse.) We like Stibbe more for not being Mary Poppins. She dents Wilmer’s car and neglects to tell her about it. She dodges fares on the tube. She pushes Sam in the pool when he won’t go in. The pleasures in Love, Nina are modest but very real. It’s a book that may put readers in mind of Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road (1970), that volume of discursive correspondence between a book lover in New York and the staff of an antiquarian bookshop in London. It’s a book that makes you wish Wilmers would write a proper memoir, one that might detail the many things not mentioned here: Her upbringing in a cosmopolitan, itinerant Jewish family; her time at Oxford along with Bennett; her young adulthood in London in the Swinging sixties and seventies; the way she has reportedly pumped millions of dollars from her family trust into keeping The London Review afloat. It seems appropriate to end a review of this brisk book with a few of Wilmers’ words. When an acquaintance — here called Brainbox — drops by the house unexpectedly, the moment is captured this way: Brainbox: Hello, Mary-Kay! MK: Oh, right. BB: Can’t stay long. MK: Good.
April 28th 2014
May 12th 2014