I do judge books by their covers, sometimes, and the one on Love, Nina made me place it in the “probably not” pile. Its bright watercolor artwork (kids, bicycle, vaguely European street scene) suggests a book that’s trying too hard, in the Peter Mayle vein, to be adorable. The subtitle, “A Nanny Writes Home,” doesn’t dispel this impression.
Here, you think, is a book that wants to throttle you with its charm, as if intended to appeal to the owners of bookstores that mostly stock potpourri, clip-on reading lamps and complicated bookmarks.
Mea maxima culpa. It turns out that Love, Nina is indeed charming, but only in the best ways. It’s observant, funny, terse, at times a bit rude. It affords a glimpse into a rarefied London social and literary milieu. It’s an Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey of sorts, set not in a manor house but in the genteel bohemian home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, the longtime editor of The London Review of Books.
Nina Stibbe was 20 in 1982, when she was hired by Wilmers to be the nanny to her young sons, Will and Sam. Wilmers was a single mother; her sons were the product of her marriage to the film director Stephen Frears, which had ended in divorce.
Stibbe moved to London from Leicestershire to take the position. She missed her sister, Victoria, who worked in a nursing home. So the two began exchanging letters. The author’s side of this correspondence, written from 1982 to 1987, makes up the entirety of Love, Nina.
These letters are winning from the start. Stibbe describes being a nanny as “not like a job really, just like living in someone else’s life.” She quickly realizes that she’s come to live with one of those families whose daily life has a bit of unfussy magic in it.
The Wilmers house is art-filled. Everyone is amusing and curses a lot. Evenings are spent flipping through dictionaries and arguing about, for example, whether “brim” is a better word than “flank” and “how to offend — in German and English.” This is the kind of book in which a pair of cheap curtains are likely to be described as “very ‘Mike Leigh.’”
Neighbors and friends are constantly dropping by, notably Alan Bennett, the playwright and London Review diarist, who seems to arrive every other night for dinner, and Claire Tomalin, the biographer and journalist.
Stibbe was not much of a cook when she arrived in London. Many of the best bits in her letters detail her running battles with Bennett, “AB” in this volume, over how best to prepare a variety of dishes. The author often gives us verbatim dialogue, such as:
AB: Very nice, but you don’t really want tinned tomatoes in a beef stew.
ME: It’s a Hunter’s Stew.
AB: You don’t want tinned tomatoes in it, whoever’s it is.
Wilmers, “MK” here, seems like a somewhat warmer version of Miranda Priestly, the imperious magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada. She’s skinny; she smokes; she brings her floppy-haired boyfriends around; she stares at the ceiling when she wants to let you know you’re being an idiot.
She loathes platitudes. Stibbe says, “I remember once, in 1982, asking MK if she’d had a nice weekend and I could see it didn’t go down well so never asked again.”
When a friend presents Wilmers with wind chimes said to ward off bad spirits, she doesn’t want them, Stibbe says, because “(a) she doesn’t like tinkling noises and (b) she’s not 100 percent anti bad spirits.”