Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home, by Nina Stibbe
Having read both of the author’s humorous and almost tragic novels, this book comes as an intriguing of sometimes frustrating memoir of a young woman taking care of two foul-mouthed but often entertaining boys and their mother, who happened to be an important figure in the literary world in London. A series of fortunate circumstances–the difficulty that the author had in talking on the phone and the fact that her sister hated going to London–led to a lengthy and entertaining series of letters being sent back and forth between the two sisters over the course of several years in the 1980’s. My enjoyment of reading this particular book is largely based on my interest in letters as a whole, particularly the letters of writers, and not on my agreement with the author in questions of religion, literature, or politics, where there is very little agreement between her tastes and beliefs and values and my own. It is likely that if you enjoy this book it will be because of the humor of the author’s self-expression and because of her dishy comments about somewhat famous people (including noted biographer Claire Tomalin ), rather than for agreement with her or appreciation of how she lives her life.
The letters in this book are organized in chronological fashion, and from them we see that Nina was able in her young adulthood to work as a nanny for two sons of a wealthy and influential editor in London and then go to university where she studied literature and eventually (after the course of this book) became a well-regarded novelist for her two semi-autobiographical novels. The letters themselves detail Nina’s attempts to learn how to cook various dishes, her petty acts of deception and thievery, her on-again, off-again relationship with Nunney, her troubles parking and driving, her struggles with her schooling, and her entertaining efforts at not being too much of a pain to the famous and semi-famous people she happens to know, not all of whom are charmed by her sense of humor. The author writes plenty of bad poetry, most of which is entertaining, and the letters themselves offer an interesting look at life for a young woman in the 1980’s who is trying to catch up from neglecting her studies earlier and changing the trajectory of her life from the service to the knowledge economy, even as she heaps scorn upon Conservatives and traditionalists all the while.
This book is both entertaining and deeply mysterious. Why was it that Nina hadn’t gotten her A-levels before? She certainly seems very intelligent, and she is certainly well-read. How does a smart girl like her end up trying to make ends meet as a nanny for two spoiled brats? There certainly is a larger story going on here. Also, for all of the author’s tendency to bash marriage, it looks like her own life and that of many people around her is a case study for what happens when there is a lack of stability in the home. Her own situation as well as the lack of discipline among the two boys she nannies appears in large part due to the lack of a man at the helm, and though she has had a steady partnership with Nunny from the time of this book onward, she apparently has felt no need to upgrade from concubine to wife during that time, for whatever reason. For a smart girl, Nina says and does some very dumb things, which is not all that surprising for the contemporary class of cultural elites and intellectuals, I suppose.