After having this on my shelf since shortly after its release, I finally picked it up because I found out it had been adapted to a mini-series starring Helena Bonham Carter. As most of us do, I prefer to read the book before watching the adaptation, so I figured I might as well get around to giving it a try. I didn’t know that much about it going in, just that it was humorous and British. All I needed to know, really.
This book is an epistolary novel, told in the form of letters Nina wrote to her sister when she moved to London to become a nanny for two young boys, Sam and Will (they were 9 and 10 and a half at the start of the book). Sam has some health issues, so is occasionally bedridden and has frequent visits to various medical professionals. Their mother is Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books, and there are many other famous characters who pop in (often literally). Most notable among them for me is Alan Bennett, one of my favourite authors, who lives across the street and frequently drops in to eat (and criticize) dinner.
I loved this family – the two boys are precocious in the funniest way possible, telling jokes that are often inappropriate but all the funnier for coming from a 9 or 10 year old. But it is Mary-Kay (or MK), their mother, who really stole the show. She is the queen of witty one-liners, and her intelligence and style are made more approachable by her eccentricity.
The one issue I had with this book was that when Nina starts discussing her studies (she applies to and attends college after being pushed to do so by the beyond literate people she is surrounded by) she starts to take on this pretentious tone. She talks down to her sister, telling her which books to read and that some may be beyond her but that she should try to work up to them, explaining literary theory in a haughty tone, and bragging about her own reading and academic connections and conversations. Though annoying, I can forgive this for two reasons: firstly, she was young. I believe she was only 19 at the beginning of the book. Youth can be accompanied by a need to brag about one’s accomplishments and knowledge, and it’s a phase that most of us went through in some form or another. Secondly, she has been surrounded by London’s intellectual elite for years, probably talked down to in turn by some of them, definitely left feeling inadequate and like an outsider for not knowing the literary references made in casual conversation. So when she begins her own educational journey, she suddenly begins to enter into this world she has felt like an outsider in for so long, and this newfound understanding probably made her feel like she was finally part of some intellectual club. But nonetheless, I found these parts of the letters boring, and far too plentiful.
I can forgive this failing, however, because I loved everything else so much. The stories and snippets of conversations she transcribes were brilliant. Her ability to recall and observe the interactions of those around her is unparalleled and completely hilarious. It reminded me in parts of Bridget Jones’ Diary and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4, both favourites of mine. I fell in love with the family (and honorary member Alan Bennett, present on an almost daily basis) and was left wanting more of them.
This book is an excellent summer/beach book (or just a light read to help get you out of a slump), perfect if you enjoy a dry, slightly dark sense of humour and definitely worth reading if you find 1980s literary London fascinating.
I went on to watch the mini-series based on this book (I actually overlapped the first couple of episodes). Like the book it’s not perfect, but is good enough that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it and wish there had been more episodes! It does a great job of balancing out the more serious aspects (Sam’s frequent illnesses, Nina’s lack of manners and occasional incompetence) with wry humour. Helena Bonham Carter does a fantastic job of bringing Mary-Kay to life – she was intimidatingly intelligent, but managed to put those around her at ease with her well-timed humorous asides (though her wit was further evidence of her intelligence in and of itself). The characters all have their own quirks and foibles, but are a lovable pack who become a wonderful makeshift family.
Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life is the laugh-out-loud story of the trials and tribulations of a very particular family.
‘What a beady eye she has for domestic life, and how deliciously fresh and funny she is’ Deborah Moggach, author of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
In the 1980s Nina Stibbe wrote letters home to her sister in Leicester describing her trials and triumphs as a nanny to a London family. There’s a cat nobody likes, a visiting dog called Ted Hughes (Ted for short) and suppertime visits from a local playwright. Not to mention the two boys, their favourite football teams, and rude words, a very broad-minded mother and assorted nice chairs.
From the mystery of the unpaid milk bill and the avoidance of nuclear war to mealtime discussions on pie filler, the greats of English literature, swearing in German and sexually transmitted diseases, Love, Nina is a wonderful celebration of bad food, good company and the relative merits of Thomas Hardy and Enid Blyton. – Goodreads
Book Title: Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life
Author: Nina Stibbe
Published By: Penguin Books UK
Released: February 27, 2014 (originally released November 7, 2013)
Genre: Memoir, Epistolary, Humour
Date Read: June 5-9, 2017