- The Flamethrowers—Rachel Kushner
- Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove—Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
- Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957–1959—David Kynaston
- The Orphan Master’s Son—Adam Johnson
- Bough Down—Karen Green
- Meeting the English—Kate Clanchy
- Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home—Nina Stibbe
- Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes—Hampton Hawes
- The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright—Jean Nathan
- A Summer Bird-Cage—Margaret Drabble
So this I wasn’t expecting. I am sent a book by my publishers. It’s called Love, Nina, and it’s subtitled A Nanny Writes Home. On the cover is a cute sketch of a kitchen table: teapot (in a tea-cozy), a can of tomatoes, a plate, a mug, some writing paper, a bottle of milk. There’s a can of Heineken there, too, but it’s not jarring enough to make you think that the book is going to rock in any way—it’s clearly aimed at genteel ladies of a certain age and above. So I am about to place it in the recycling box when I think, Hold on. Why are my publishers sending me books aimed at genteel ladies of a certain age and above? I know it’s been a while since I wrote a book, but surely there are some people there who remember that I am of the male persuasion, and that my tolerance for gentility is limited. I dig the book out, find a note in it from an editor I know and trust, and, still somewhat suspicious, begin to read. Well, it turns out that Love, Nina is the funniest and most eccentric book I have read this year, and I am certain that it will be very loved for many years to come. And that wasn’t the only surprise it threw me.
Nina Stibbe came down to London from Leicestershire in 1982, when she was twenty, to work for a complicated family, and the book is a collection of the letters she wrote to her sister Victoria over the next few years. (The incoming letters are not reproduced here, although sometimes Nina’s elliptical first and last lines help you to imagine her sister’s voice, and the cheerful, easy intimacy the two of them share. “Firstly, about your boss walking around in the nude… I don’t think it’s anything to do with him being Swedish or Norwegian,” Nina begins one letter. “Surprised about Gordon Banks” is how she ends another. (Gordon Banks was England’s goalkeeper during the 1960s, but knowing that won’t help you with the reference any more than it did me.) And here’s the second surprise: I have tangential connections to the family. Lots of people who write for a living do. Nina’s employer is Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her charges are Sam Frears and Will Frears, then aged ten and eight or so, sons of my friend Stephen Frears. So that was sort of weird, too, because though you’ve probably all read books written by the former nannies of friends, I never have. As usual, I’m the last.
There is so much I want to say about Love, Nina, but where to begin? I could start with the location, in Regent’s Park, North London, not far from my home, and with Nina’s new neighbors: Alan Bennett, the brilliant playwright, actor, essayist, and screenwriter, lives opposite. Jonathan Miller, stage director and intellectual superstar, lives up the road. And Claire Tomalin, beloved biographer; her partner, Michael Frayn; and her children live around the corner. Initially, at least, Nina doesn’t know who any of these people are. “Of course he’s the Alan Bennett,” she says to Victoria patronizingly. “You’d know him if you saw him. He used to be in Coronation Street.” This is a reference to our longest-running soap opera, and, needless to say, Alan Bennett has never been anywhere near it. And yet so acute an observer is Nina that she goes on to provide a portrait of Bennett that is as vivid and as recognizable as one of Bennett’s own characters, someone from his brilliant Talking Heads series, say. Bennett walks over the road to eat supper with Mary-Kay, Nina, and the boys several evenings a week, and the conversations go something like this:
AB: This is tasty.
MK: Do you have to say ‘tasty’?
AB: It is tasty.
MK: I’m not denying it, but there’s no need to say ‘tasty.’
Questioned by AB about the ingredients (suspicious?):
AB: Have you put cardamoms in?
Me: They were optional.
AB: Did you opt for them?
Most of the letters contain similar tiny playlets, all of them sweetly and amusingly revealing of the domestic preoccupations of an unlikely family unit. AB and MK and Sam and Will talk about flowers and dry cleaners and pie fillings and roadwork, and a neighbor’s gigantic bottom, and what the German word for “motherfucker” is. (“AB: (pondering) It might be mutterficken? Or perhaps arshficken, arshlock? But please can’t we discuss nicer things?”) And very quickly, Nina Stibbe’s eyes and ears produce a kind of giggly hysteria in the reader, and you can’t wait for the next meal, the next haircut, the next freezer malfunction, the next date that Mary-Kay goes on. (“Get in there, Floppy,” Sam shouts at one hapless suitor with floppy hair as he and Mary-Kay go out one evening.)