It’s 1982 and Nina Stibbe has taken a job at 55 Gloucester Crescent in London as nanny to two young brothers. “I’d not been a nanny before but felt sure it would be a nice life.”
It was indeed a congenial life, even though Stibbe missed her sister Victoria and their “nightly conflabs.” The problem was solved by writing letters to each other. Stibbe has collected her letters to Vic in her charming book “Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home.”
Stibbe, as it turned out, wasn’t working for just any posh London family. She was working for Mary-Kay Wilmers (MK), the deputy editor of the London Review of Books. Ten-and-a-half-year-old Sam and nine-year-old Will are the sons of Stephen Frears, the celebrated film director whose credits include “My Beautiful Launderette,” “The Queen,” and the recent hit, “Philomena.”
Gloucester Crescent is home to other notables as well, who seem to float in and our of each others' homes with ease. “History Boys” writer, author and actor Alan Bennett (AB) invariably turns up for supper. Claire Tomalin, the literary editor of the Sunday Times and playwright and her partner novelist Michael are also near neighbors, as is New Yorker theater critic John Lahr and his family and actor Jonathan Miller.
Unfazed by all this celebrity-- she mistakenly thinks Jonathan Miller is an opera singer -- Stibbe chronicles the family’s daily life. Despite suffering from Riley-Day, a hereditary nervous system disorder, Sam is bright and lively company, as is his brother Will. Her letters are studded with their hilarious conversations:
MK: How was the swim?
Sam: It was OK.
Sam: Except I am never going to trust her again.
Sam: She pushed me in.
MK: (a bit shocked) You pushed him in?
Me: I had to.
Me: He didn’t want to go in.
MK: Surely that’s a reason not to push someone in?
Will: Unless it’s Sam.
Sam: Anyway, I’ll never trust her again.
Will: I haven’t trusted her since 1981.
Sam: You didn’t meet her till 1982.
Will: Well, there you are.
MK: (to Sam) So did you have a nice swim once she’d pushed you in?
Sam: It was OK, but my trust is lost.
Stibbe is in many ways more than a nanny. She is a full member of this eccentric and lively household. Like a real life Mary Poppins, she pretty much runs the show:
Good news. Mary-Kay has pranged the car at long last – a relief after all mine (prangs). She drove into a rope, which was “the same color as the road and sky.” Plus it was roping off an area that isn’t usually roped off.
Sam: It’s mum’s first time crashing.
Me: Yeah, but it’s worse than any of mine – in terms of damage done.
Me: Mine never required any action to be taken.
MK: Only the untangling of deception and denial.
Me: You dented the number plate – irreparably.
MK: True, but my credibility remains intact.
With the encouragement of MK and AB, Stibbe studies for her A levels, hoping to go back to school to study literature:
AB: How’s the studying gong?
MK: Except she hates everything.
Me: No, I don’t. Only Hardy.
MK: And Shakespeare and Chaucer.
AB: What’s wrong with Hardy?
Me: It’s this little picture you see everywhere of his round head.
AB: I don’t think you should hold that against him.
Even after she enrolls in Thames Polytechnic and moves out of the house, she continues to visit before eventually moving back in. Her letters to her sister chronicling student life and the goings-on of the household of 55 Gloucester Crescent are, for the most part, just as engaging and funny.
“Love, Nina” is absolutely laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s also entirely endearing, completely charming and wonderfully wise. Read this book: you'll find that there are so many reasons to love Nina.
"Love, Nina" is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.