When I was nineteen I moved to Rome to au pair for an amazing family with two girls. A couple of years later I was in Milan looking after a little boy with very good taste in books. When I read the first couple of pages of Love, Nina – Despatches from Family Life, it brought back all of my memories from that time. This book is a must for all au pairs and nannies out there!
Made up of letters written to her sister in the 1980s, this book gives a candid insight into Nina’s life as a nanny in the home of the London Review of Books editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers. She didn’t realise it then, but she had landed in the house of literary connections; Friends and neighbours included Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn, Deborah Moggach and Alan Bennett, who Nina introduces as “the Alan Bennett… He used to be in Coronation Street.” Bennett, referred to as ‘AB’, is a frequent visitor, often joining the family for dinner. He brings along eccentric conversation, surprising cookery advice and the odd rice pudding. But it’s not the famous names scattered throughout that has left such an impression on me – what I really love is the relationships between Nina, Mary-Kay and the kids, Sam and Will. She fits right in as a member of the family, and her dialogues made me reminisce about similar conversations I had with the children I looked after. These mini dialogues are short and sweet, but there’s a cleverness in the simplicity.
“Sam: How do you play marbles?
Me: I don’t actually know.
Sam: Is it to do with rolling them?
Me: I think so, but I’m not sure how exactly.
Sam: Didn’t you play marbles in your day?
Will: She lost them at a young age.”
Not only does Nina capture the children’s sense of humour, she also captures the natural speech of people sitting around a dinner table. And this family have some interesting conversations; whether it be local gossip, talk about books, or simply explaining their favourite words.
“Me (to assembly) What’s your favourite word?
Sam: Not this again.
Me: What’s your favourite word of the moment?
Will: Not counting ‘swiegermutter’, I like ‘antidote’.
(We all mutter, ‘Yeah.’)
Sam: I can’t decide between oblong and toad.
(We all mutter, ‘Toad – yeah’, ‘Oblong – yeah.’)
Me: I like ‘hoof’.
(We all mutter, ‘Yeah’.)
Will: I thought you liked ‘trousers’.
Me: I used to.”
Who would have thought that a book that focuses mostly on the ordinary domestic happenings in a family home could be so funny and readable? Mary-Kay’s home isn’t exactly dull, but it takes a certain type of writer to keep me interested in a humming fridge for two pages. “Yesterday the fridge started humming. It took me a while to work out where the noise was coming from. I thought it was Will. Will thought it was Sam. Sam thought it was me.” The letters are unedited apart from a few grammatical changes, and the fresh young twenty-something words feel very realistic. I don’t usually like diary entry books, but I felt so comfortable reading Love, Nina, she could almost be one of my au pair friends writing to me about their experiences. This books resonates so strongly with me and I’m sure it would with other au pairs and nannies. It’s heart warming, truthful and an hilarious insight into a twenty-something’s brain.
Want to try it out yourself, buy a copy by clicking on the link below.