When I began reading this book, I didn't realize that it was a novel.
It reads like a perfectly truthful memoir of a young woman's experience nannying for a rich family in New York, shot into the very strange stratosphere of this economic class. She is an old hand at this stuff, familiar with the many elite child hangouts of the city.
"Mommy & Me... As the name implies, mothers are expected to go. Nevertheless, half of the group is nannies.
Swimming lesson at Asphalt Green... One emaciated woman in a Chanel swimsuit and five nannies in muumuus all pleading with toddlers to 'Get in the water!'"
Strangely enough, she is named Nan, and called "Nanny" not only by her friends but her employers as well, much as the idiotically rich Karen Walker (on Will & Grace) calls her staff things like "Driver" and "Cook." Nanny immediately bonds with Grayer, the oddly-named four-year-old son of this odd family. The father is conspicuously absent for "business," the mother for whatever gets her away from her child.
The child is particularly well-drawn; the authors manage to display his humanity and depth of emotion without betraying him with overly adult language. In other words, he interacts with people and reacts to his parents' abandonment the way a four-year-old would, and is all the more engaging because of it. When Nanny takes over from his beloved Caitlin, he locks her out:
"Grayer, open the door."
"No! I can stick my fingers out at you and you can't see. I got my thung thitikin out, too.... You're not even playing! I'm going to go take a bath. So don't ever come back here, okay. My mom said you don't ever have to come back."
When he meets his father's mistress, after accidentally walking in on them months before, we get this very special moment:
Ms. Chicago struts to our end of the table, her lizard-skin pumps silent on the plush carpet. "And you're Grayer. Do you remember me?" she bends down to inquire.
Grayer places her. "You don't wear pants." Oh, sweet Jesus.
The rest of the characters are just as carefully crafted: even the sleazy husband has a moment to shine, a brief shared smile in the kitchen in between bouts of family drama. The most minor characters are as funny and enjoyable as the rest, from a demented and cocaine-addled ex-beauty-queen who starts a food fight with Grayer and her own kid, to Jane, the ludicrously uptight "Long-term Development Consultant" for preschoolers.
"What methodology are you following to dress him?"
"He picks out his clothes or Mrs. X does. As long as he'll be comfortable--"
"You don't utilize an Apparel Chart, then?"
"And I suppose you are not documenting his choices with him on a Closet Diagram."
"Nor are you having him translate his color and sizes into the Latin."
"Maybe later this year." She looks back at me and nods for a while. I shift in my seat and smile. She leans across the desk and takes off her glasses.
"Nanny, I'm going to have to raise a flag here...."
The only slip is in the main character herself. She is largely excellent; her insanely boundaryless behavior is balanced by a witty, entertaining cast of supporting friends and family who keep offering reality checks. For example, after months of Mrs. X giving her dizzying hours and forcing her to go on insane errands, Mr. X's mistress sends mail to Nan's house:
"It's so over the line," Sarah confirms.
"Oh, does Nan have a line?" Josh asks.
But for some reason, almost every scene with her boyfriend features her complaining about her job and then biting his head off and eating it whole -- and there's nobody to call her on it.
For me, this was the only flaw in an otherwise hilarious and gripping book. Nan battles wildly to finish her courseload and write and defend her thesis while working increasing hours as Grayer's surrogate parent. I rooted for her the whole way, and identified with her a little too much.
I've known too many Mrs. Xes: people who exploited the friends who loved their children and wove a web of insanity around them all. I've been in Nanny's position, unpaid, held there by my own inability to say no as well as by the mom's threats of never again letting me see the kid I love if I don't take all the child-watching hours she wants. One minute I'm part of the family; the next, I'm being accused of random and inexplicable wrongs by a parent threatened by their child's love for anyone except them. It's a demented place to be in, and it made me loathe the mother in the book even more. The end message, at least, is an inspiring one about the love that kids both deserve and need.
It's an inspiring message... but I should add that it's delivered with a lot of anger. kthejoker notes that "The book was so scathing and unrelenting - I couldn't enjoy it - I felt like I was reading racist literature or something. It was funny, but it was so dark and angry." I gave the authors a lot of leeway in how angry it made me feel, because I know that a lot of my anger came from the outrage of having worked and lived in similarly frustrating situations. On one level, I found it relaxing because I got very involved in the story; on another, it was a stressful read because, well, I got very involved in the story.
Authors Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus have really done their job here, and were rewarded by hitting the New York Times bestseller list. Miramax bought the movie rights and intends to make a feature film. The book's official site tells us much about the accolades and on the subject of the authors says only that they live in New York, are working on their next book together, and are no longer nannies. To quote the Sydney Morning Herald,
Not only have they avenged every slight and skewered every Park Avenue bitch who ever dissed them, but they've also come out with their virtue intact, and made a fortune out of it. Now that's clever.
The Sydney Herald:
The Nanny Diaries site: