Nina Stibbe was 20 years old in 1982 when she moved to London to become the live-in nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her sons Sam and Will (whose father is film director Stephen Frears). There was no convenient phone, so Nina began sending quirky, funny letters home to her sister to report on her job.

Now, more than 30 years later, Stibbe has published these letters, mostly unchanged. The result is a collection of entertaining, if not downright hilarious, vignettes of daily life and the comings and goings of a fascinating community. Nina gets to know playwright Alan Bennett, stage director Jonathan Miller and well-known biographer Claire Tomalin, among others.

Stibbe describes her home (“Most of the plates we use for food, and mugs, are antique. Some chipped. Some nice, some spooky”) and her bright, irrepressible charges (“Will is worried about nuclear war. . . . Sam is envious of all the attention Will’s getting over the nuclear war anxiety. He says he’s got an anxiety too, he can’t say what it is, only that it’s a lot worse than Will’s.”). She also chronicles in a matter-of-fact way Sam’s trips to the hospital resulting from serious health issues.

While Nina is a keen observer, we also trace her own coming-of-age journey. Nina finds love not far away and is also encouraged by her new family and friends to set her sights high and pursue an education. When asked, “So have you got all the books on the syllabus?” Nina ruefully admits to her sister: “I didn’t even know what a syllabus was.”

Life as a nanny in this family is never dull. And neither is Stibbe’s heartfelt and funny memoir, which reminds us that while days with children may seem ordinary, helping them grow is one of the most extraordinary things we can do.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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