Some of my favorite people on Twitter are a group of British authors that includes Bim Adewunmi (@bimadew), India Knight (@indiaknight), Jojo Moyes (@jojomoyes), and Emma Beddington (@Belgianwaffling). In addition to being generally hilarious, they often have conversations amongst themselves about what they’ve been reading, and paying attention to those back-and-forths is a fabulous way of staying on top of what the cool (but non-pretentious) kids in publishing are reading and enjoying. The problem is that not everything they talk about is available in the U.S. I spent months watching them rave over a memoir that I couldn’t get, but just when I was about to cave and pay the insane shipping on amazon.co.uk, Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home by Nina Stibbe came out in the U.S. And it is just as great as they said it was.
Now, if I had just read a description of the book, I’m not sure if it would have caught my eye: in the 1980s, a young woman takes a job working as a nanny for two boys whose parents run in London’s fancy literary/artsy circles, and this is a collection of the letters she wrote home to her sister. I don’t know, it sounds very, innocent-country-girl-in-the-city? Or like a pre-Internet mommyblog? I’m just not sure I would expect much. But it is so much more sharp and thoughtful and, friendly than it sounds.
First of all, Nina and the family she works for are all hilarious. It’s clear that MK (the mom) was far more interested in a nanny who was clever and could keep up with the jokes and get along with the kids than in someone who could cook, clean, or successfully park a car. So there’s no employee-employer feel here, but rather it seems like you’re reading about the daily lives of a snarky bunch of friends. In the letters themselves, Nina often entertains her sister with retellings of conversations she has with the kids or MK, which are awesome. And presumably because these were going to a sister she was close to, Nina doesn’t try to make herself look good in the letters (there is kind of an on-going joke about Nina lying when she gets stuck in unpleasant situations). But that just make her seem even more relatable, and like someone you’d very much like to hang out with. In fact, the whole books feels like you’re getting to be in on all the jokes and secrets of some very cool people—there is one bit when Nina is evaluating a number of people on whether she is going to try to make friends with them, and I found myself thinking, “I really hope she’d have thought I looked worth the effort.” There’s no huge dramatic arc here, or any big tragedy, it’s just a lot of smart people who like each other chatting and having tea and reading things. It’s the perfect life, really.
I should say that this is an incredibly English book. There is a lot of discussion of English foods and dish soap and lots of slang, and lots of references to people that I suspect are more household names in the U.K. than they are here. The book opens with a list of main characters, and I did have to refer back to it and to Google occasionally to make sure I understood all the references. But you wouldn’t have to do this—the point here is not the celebrity gossip, and I think you could skim over every odd English reference and still enjoy this immensely.
Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Cool, charming, and funny.
You might also like: This is not at all original, because a number of other reviewers have mentioned this, but Love, Nina feels a lot like 84 Charing Cross Road, another sweet English book of letters. And Nancy Mitford’s books are from a different generation, but I think they also have a similar chatty, inside-joke sensibility (with just a tiny little bit of added Nazis).