Sunday, June 22, 2014

"Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home," by Nina Stibbe

What a treat it was to read Nina Stibbe’s dryly hilarious memoir of a certain time in her life, told through letters to her sister. “Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home” (Little, Brown, 2013) tells of the time in her life (1982-1987) when she was a nanny and then family friend and lodger to the family of Mary-Kay Wilmers (MK), deputy editor of The London Review of Books, and her two young sons Sam and Will. A frequent visitor to the household is Alan Bennett, the famous playwright, screenwriter, and actor; he comes over for dinner from across the street almost every evening. Many of MK’s and therefore the family’s neighbors and friends are also in the worlds of literature, the theater, and music; these include the film director Stephen Frears (father of MK’s two sons), the theater director and actor Jonathan Miller, the writer and editor Claire Tomalin, and the writer Michael Frayn. Other characters in the stories told by Stibbe include neighbors, the boys’ friends, Nina’s family members, fellow nannies, and Nina’s classmates when she starts at a local university. So part of the fun of reading this book is the glimpses into the lives of these well-known and witty literary people. But what is fascinating is that the everyday conversations in the home, between MK, Stibbe, and the boys, are just as funny, witty, and meaningful as the adult conversations reported. And Stibbe’s own voice as she tells her sister snippets of her life in London is original, deadpan, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. The actual events Stibbe narrates are far from earthshaking, but she makes the reader care about them, and want to know what happens next. She is a great observer, and can be wry and pointed in her descriptions, but basically has a good-hearted and good-humored perspective on life and on those she knows. She is confident enough to be amusingly self-deprecatory, and is very funny about her literature classes and her preferences in reading matter. It helps too if the reader loves –- as I do -- literature, all things British, and understated humor. “Love, Nina” is one of those rare books that doesn’t remind you of other books, because it is so fully and uniquely itself; it is truly sui generis.

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