I warned you. In true “only ten days to the bar panic mode” I reverted from reading edifying books to reading blatant chick lit. Because, while it might not be “the mirror of sages” (thanks, Edward Gibbon!) and may not instruct or reflect or alter my perception in any way, it’s a nice escape that is less eye-draining than watching tv, and less exhausting than running flashcards for the twelfth hour in a day. So then. The Nanny Diaries, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus.
The back reads: “Who wouldn’t want this job? Struggling to graduate from NYU and afford her microscopic studio apartment, Nanny takes a position caring for the only son of the wealthy X family. She rapidly learns the insane amount of juggling involved o ensure that a Park Avenue wife, who doesn’t work, cook, clean, or raise her own child, has a smooth day. When the Xs’ marriage begins to disintegrate, Nanny ends up involved way beyond the bounds of human decency or good taste.”
The plot is fairly simple — a young, 22 year old woman who herself comes from an immensely wealthy family, regularly takes jobs baby-sitting for families on the Upper East Side. The novel chronicles her engagement with one, particular family, filled with the caricatures we expect: the icy socialite mother, the philandering, absent father, and, of course, a charming little four year old. At times, these characters are almost humanized: Mrs. X (the mother) begins to dissolve a little as she discovers that her husband is cheating, and. . .that’s about it, really.
Now a major motion picture!
Nan provides a delightful voice for the novel, but she’s also the base problem behind it. Nan is, we are told, a Child Development major at NYU. Occassionally she’ll rattle off the names of some of the great thinkers, and she’s determined to get a job working with children with less resources, but overall, she never quite feels like this is her goal. She reads a little flat, like the 16 year old girl who likes kids and therefore wants to be a teacher. She never discusses wanted Grayer to grow, or develop himself, or be exposed to different cultures or circumstances: she never worries about his development, or diagnoses his, or anything else that overly-educated young people love to do. She just wants him to eat chicken nuggets and drink pop like a “normal kid.”
The other problem with Nan is that she should know better. This isn’t a woman who has her first job ever nannying for these people — she’s never amazed by their actions, or shocked, never disappointed or outraged (not until the final scene, at least): the very first chapter goes through her detailing the detached lives that wealthy Manhattanite parents lead. Nan knows how things work at the beginning, and she knows exactly the same things at the end: she has not herself grown or developed in any way. Nor have the other characters in the novel.
It’s probably meant to be a bit of a satire, but even that fails — throughout the novel, Nan and the little boy interact with other parents of the Upper East Side: a gay couple and their charming, precocious daughter, who put up Christmas trees together and value their “together” time — a fabulously wealthy entrepreneurial couple with three daughters, a golden Retriever, and a guinea pig, who spend time together and cook and clean together: a detached, cokehead ex-pageant queen of a mother who has a nanny not to take care of her son, but to take care of her. Nanny knows, and the reader knows, too, that this is not the world of everyone — that this just happens to be one bad family. And bad families, of course, exist at every socio-economic level. Absentee fathers come in all shapes and sizes — those who, like Mr. X., spent excessive hours at the office and value work over family; those who spend excessive hours who knows where; those in prison; those on military duty; those who have no choice but to work ninety hours a day. And the same goes for the mothers who don’t raise their old children.
In the end, Nan comes off sounding almost petty. Her complaints are the complaints of any baby-sitter. She complains, incessantly, of her pay grade — the novel, by the way, was published in 2002, at which point I was pulling in only $5 an hour to baby-sit families of four: Nanny gets $12 to watch one little boy — I don’t care what you say about increased cost of living in NYC, I would kill for that kind of pay grade. The book, by necessity, revolves around her work for the family, but that doesn’t make sense — she is working only ten hours a week at the beginning of the book, and twenty by the end. A normal 22 year old would have stories about friends, parties, classes at NYU, a thousand other topics than just her work. Yet we only ever see two of Nan’s friends, hear about half a class, and meet her new (amazing) boyfriend.
That’s not to say the book isn’t worth the read. It’s fine. It’s quick. It’s easy and painless, and the little boy in the book is ridiculously cute. If I remember correctly the movie made the wise decision of having Nanny be an anthropology major (so that occassionally she commented on the “culture” of the Upper East Side) but other than that was, I think, rather painful. Maybe I should watch it again?
So in conclusion: it’s fine for an easy summer read, it’s a decent beach book, and the writing is above that of many other authors. It’s a lovely reminder of how beautiful NYC is in the window, and how awful it can be in summer, and is one of the few, touching portrayals out there about rich but emotionally deprived children. So pick it up for an easy read, but leave it on the shelf if you’re looking for a “window into the soul.”