This engaging book is a series of short letters Nina Stibbe sent to her sister when Nina was a nanny in London for Mary-Kay Wilmers, a founder and the current editor of the London Review of Books. Wilmers is divorced from Steve Frears (filmmaker: My Beautiful Laundrette and Philomena) and Nina was hired to help care for their two sons, Sam and Will. In the early 1980s Nina moved to London from Leicestershire and from a non-academic background into an intellectual and bohemian atmosphere. She was not conventional herself — didn’t like to wear shoes — so she fit in well, if “fit” is the right word. The household is augmented by the literary folks who drop by for dinner often (Alan Bennett), who have some connection (Michael Frayn), and who are mentioned anonymously because of their drug or sexual activities.
Here are a couple of examples of the dialogue she recounts:
…we were saying how some people are friendly, some grumpy and horrible. Sam and Will and me saying some people just are grumpy by nature, Mary-Kay saying most people are ok.
MK: People are only horrible if they are hungry or unhappy.
Will: That could be anyone.
Will: At any time.
Sam: They just need a banana.
Mary-Kay does most of the shopping for the household and Nina recounts:
Mary-Kay has bought toilet paper with pink rosebuds on it. It looks nice until you use it.
Me: I don’t like the rosebud toilet paper.
MK: I know, I know.
Me: It’s worrying.
MK: I know. I didn’t think it through.
And this one:
Don’t think I ever said I didn’t like the name Peter. Might have been Mary-Kay and her penis names thing. Peter’s fine, though it does sound a bit penisy, but then so many do. When you read American fiction, you get to accept all sorts of names that were unthinkable before. Dick, Frank, Mylo, Chuck, Mickey, Dick, Biff, Willie, Gully, Happy, Augie, Fritz, Artie, Woody, Rocky, Bill.
If that doesn’t seem quite funny enough for me to have recounted it here, well, it is hilarious as read by the author. Her tone conveys the wry humor wonderfully. It has been wonderful to have her voice in my head.
She began going to a university while still connected to the household, eventually married, has two children, and has recently published a novel called Man at the Helm. It was great hearing what she wrote to her sister about reading to prepare to go to the university. She thought the humor in Chaucer was overrated. The farting of the wife of Bath just didn’t seem funny to her. Mary-Kay helpfully explained that the key was to get Chaucer, not to like it.
Nina Stibbe, Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, 337 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at UVa, the public library, and from Amazon.