Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe
Shelf worth: 4/5
Still in a state of incomprehensible gargling after powering through the monster that is The Goldfinch (read it! It's great! But get it on Kindle or your arms might snap off), I treated myself to a glorious palate cleanser in the shape of this slim, gloriously quirky collection of letters from the early 80s.
Nina Stibbe's London-hating sister, Vic, found the letters she'd got from Nina while she was a nanny to two boys in north London. In lieu of the nightly gossips they had while living together, or a phone, they write to each other every day, and this collection of letters from Nina does what all the best letters do: tells stories from both sides without filling in all the lines.
Nina is a poster child for why we should write more letters. Her observations are sharp and funny, and she has a tremendous ear for dialogue. She also has the most wonderful cast of characters to write about: MK, her employer, is Mary-Kay Wilmers, deputy editor of the London Review of Books, the children's father is director Stephen Frears, and Alan Bennett is always popping over for tea. I love this world: I got extremely excited when, on page 80, I realised that I had their exact pretty sugar lumps sitting in my cupboard.
Her charges, Sam and Will, are two of the funniest boys to grace a book since Just William. Sam has the rare Riley-Day syndrome - there's a lovely Guardian piece about him now - but his illness plays second fiddle to the boys' incredibly casual double act. All my favourite bits of dialogue came from them, like half of William Brown's Outlaws had moved to north London.
Love, Nina is almost up there with Jilly Cooper's peerless diaries about living by Putney Common, The Common Years. I say almost, because there are very few diaries or letter series that are as gorgeous as Cooper's, and Love, Nina leaves a few irritating holes that stop it being completely splendid. While it's lovely to find out what the families are up to now - Sam is an actor and rock climber, Will is a director in Brooklyn, MK lives in another house near the Zoo, Vic has a phenomenal career in the NHS and still avoids London - it would have been particularly interesting to have a chapter on what they, and the people Nina writes to Vic about, thought about Nina.
Nina's relationship with the family is more like one of them than a nanny. This makes for a terrific dynamic, especially between her and MK (and even more so around a series of car crashes), but it makes that lack of other voices even more noticeable. Their encouragement of Nina's pursuing an English degree is understated and touching - Nina's reports to Vic on what she's reading are also great fun. You hope this sort of relationship still exists between nannies and families.
I finished this lying by the fire at my parents' house, dog at my feet, a lasagne in the oven, feeling sorry for myself after a teeth operation. This lovely, sharp book is the ideal comfort food, and a super read for winter evenings.