Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life – Nina Stibbe

Dear Vic,

Shocked to hear that Sam and Will had never had Toffos, so I got some for after school and put them on the radiator to soften up (Sam doesn’t like chewing chewy things).

Sam: (suspicious) Are they toffees? I don’t like toffee.
Me: Not as such.
Sam: Why are they called Toffos, then?
Will: Cos they’re for toffs.
Will: (chewing, thinking) Actually, they’re just naked Rolos.

I had a dilemma as to how to begin this review. Did I start by telling you that Love, Nina is a series of letters written by Nina to her sister Vic? That during the period of the 1980s in which these letters were written, Nina worked as a nanny to a family in North London that consisted of a single mother and two young boys, Will and Sam? The problem with opening there was that some of you might be put off – what do you care about a twenty-something-year-olds’ thoughts on childcare?

My alternate beginning then was to tell you that Nina was the nanny for the children of Mary Kay-Wilmers, editor of the LRB. That the children’s father is Wilmers’ ex-husband, director Stephen Frears. That AB, a popular northern playwright (yes, the Alan Bennett) frequently pops in for tea, and that Claire Tomalin (at this point Literary Editor of the Sunday Times) lives next door. The problem with that opening is that some of you might be put off – what do you care about the literati’s childcare and dining arrangements?

So I decided to begin with a short extract in the hope that the humour that radiates from these kids would catch your attention. The conclusion to the letter above goes like this:

Then Will began to tell us about food’s journey through the human intestine ‘from table to toilet’. AB said it wasn’t an appropriate subject for suppertime. But when S&W went up, AB, still eating (rice pudding), began as follows:

AB: X has got crabs apparently.
MK: Who has?
AB: X
MK: Oh dear.
AB: He’s been fucking the cleaner.
MK: Oh.

Neither of them seemed bothered – or surprised. AB just carried on eating rice pudding, and as soon as it was polite MK ground the coffee beans (noisy). Unfair that Will wasn’t allowed to discuss ‘from table to toilet’ when they can talk about crabs. Typical AB.

Hope all well at The Pines. Bad news you’re doing nights.
Love, Nina
P.S. What are crabs exactly? (I know roughly.)

And now, hopefully, you’ve gathered that the adult interactions are largely humourous and well observed too.

Stibbe has a real eye for which elements of the mundane are interesting to others and often it is her pithy commentary that allows these elements to transcend the everyday. Take the first time Mary-Kay’s new boyfriend stays (Sam refers to him as ‘Floppy’ as he has floppy hair):

I can tell MK doesn’t like him (Floppy) that much. Coming down into the kitchen on his first (public) visit, he stopped on the stairs and gazed out of the window into the garden (mossy slabs and two small trees).

Floppy: What kind of trees are those?
MK: They’re just trees. Which, in her language, is like calling someone a fucking twat. She ought to knock it on the head really.)

Love, Nina is an absolute gem of a book; it’s larger than the sum of its parts and altogether much more fabulous than its premise might suggest. I read most of it on public transport and garnered more odd looks from fellow passengers and requests from my husband to tell him what I was laughing at than I have with any other book. I’ve already ordered four more copies for Christmas presents for a diverse range of friends who I know will love it too. I can’t put it any more simply than this: read this book; it will enrich your life.

 

Thanks to Penguin for the review copy.

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