Saturday, April 11, 2015

"Man at the Helm," by Nina Stibbe

I so enjoyed English writer Nina Stibbe’s memoir, “Love Nina: A Nanny Writes Home” (which I posted about on 6/22/14) that when I saw Stibbe had published a novel, I had to read it. “Man at the Helm” (Little, Brown, 2014) has the same whimsical, slightly eccentric, and utterly engaging tone as the memoir. At first it seems to be a bit of a slight confection, airy and fun and witty, but not with much depth. But underneath the whimsy are some serious reflections on family, especially dysfunctional although loving families, and all the ways that things can go wrong – and sometimes right. The story is narrated by a precocious (in a good way) nine-year-old, Lizzie Vogel. She lives with her parents, her older sister, and her younger brother. When her father leaves the family, there are suddenly a lot of changes to absorb: not only seldom seeing the father, but moving to a village where (this is in the early 1970s) the villagers disapprove of and dislike the family, because they don’t believe in divorce, and they don’t like anyone “different.” The family is remarkably close, but the children, especially the two girls, are constantly worried about their mother, who more or less falls apart after the divorce and move, drinking too much, taking pills, and writing little playlets about her situation. The two girls scheme to bring a new man into their mother’s life, surmising that their family will be better off and more approved if there is a “man at the helm” (thus the title). Their machinations are charming and their knowledge is both incomplete and a bit scarily advanced. Some of their efforts backfire, in one case seriously. Yet there is hope as well. Stibbe hits the right notes: the children are charming and clever but not cloying or unrealistic. We care about the family, and we are entertained by their plans and manipulations, but these plans are also a little heartbreaking. Stibbe’s authorial voice is original and captivating. I look forward to her future books.

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