This is such a funny book and in this season of short days and enforced cheer you owe it to yourself to read it.
In 1982 the twenty-year-old Nina Stibbe moved to 55 Gloucester Crescent in London to become a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmer and her sons. Wilmer was and is the editor of the London Review of Books. Her sons Sam and Will (from her marriage to the film director Stephen Frears) were ten and a half and nine years old, respectively. The playwright Alan Bennett lived across the street and came over most nights for dinner. The biographer Claire Tomalin and the writer Michael Frayn lived down the road. They had a helper, a sort of personal assistant, called Mark Nunney, who Nina likes but can never quite seem to get involved with.
Love, Nina collects the letters Stibbe sent her sister Victoria, who stayed behind in Leicestershire where she worked as an aide at an old folks home. One of the small pleasures of the book lies in piecing together the other half of the conversation. (“Sorry to hear about the gum bite… good job she had no teeth, but horrible anyway.”) Victoria didn’t like London and rarely visited, but Stibbe kept her sister apprised of all the exploits of the residents of Wilmer and her circle (everyone always dropping in on each other, like a big extended family).
These are wonderful letters: gossipy but not long-winded, punchy, dry, quick-witted, and very, very funny. (As I asked recently, what are the memoirists and biographers of the future going to do without letters?) Stibbe, who later takes a course on drama at university, is at her best transcribing bits of dialogue.
Describing a day out with her friend Misty in Brighton:
The best bit was when we went into an antique shop and Misty picked up a pickle fork with a pretty green jewel on the end.
“How much is this pickle fork?” she asked the antique man.
The man said it wasn’t a pickle fork but a runcible spoon.
Misty: What’s a runcible spoon?
Man: One of them in your hand.
Misty: But what’s it for?
Man: Pickles and such.
Later she tells Misty about Mary-Kay:
Me: She’s just very unusual.
Misty: Is she a bit mad?
Me: God, no, she’s 100 percent sane.
Misty: That’s unusual.
Me: That’s what I mean.
Mary-Kay (MK in Stibbe’s shorthand) comes across very appealingly: open-minded, smart, funny, kind to Nina, dedicated to her children but keenly aware of their faults. But Stibbe also makes gentle fun of her sometimes snooty, sometimes spacey intellectual friends, and her yuppie tastes. (It’s the early 80s, after all, and people with money are discovering eight-grain bread and balsamic vinegar.) What Nina loves most in MK is her dry wit. One letter starts “Good news! Mary-Kay has pranged the car at long last—a relief after all mine (prangs).” (Stibbe is not much of a driver, though she gives plenty of advice to her sister, who is taking lessons: “not sure Mr. T is the best instructor. He never sleeps and he’s eighty-nine.”) She goes on to fill Victoria in on the conversation at 55 later that evening:
Sam: It’s mum first time crashing.
Me: Yeah, but it’s worse than any of mine—in terms of damage done.
Me: Mine never required any action to be taken.
MK: Only the untangling of deception and denial.
Me: You dented the number plate—irreparably.
MK: True, but my credibility remains intact.
Another time she and MK discuss the latest fad:
Me: Do you ever do yoga?
MK: No, but I hear it’s very good.
Ne So why don’t you go?
MK: I expect I shall at some point.
Me: Me too.
(This perfectly gets the sense that yoga or things like it—pilates, say, or whatever the next thing is that all right-thinking people who love themselves and want to live forever absolutely must do—will come to us all, even those of us who have absolutely no intention of ever doing them.)
Sam & Will are just as appealing, especially since they have such a foil in their nanny, who often wants to be more immature than they are. Both Nina and Mary-Kay love to banter with them. At one point, Stibbe’s brother visits and gives Sam a “sexy pen”:
Press the top and the woman’s bra disappears. We all like it and keep pressing the top to see the bra disappear.
MK: Don’t take it to school.
Sam: Why not?
MK: Your teacher will confiscate it.
Sam: What do you mean?
MK: She’ll take it from you.
Sam: She won’t want it.
I could go on quoting from the book all day. Instead, just read it for yourself. It’s not that life at 55 is perfect or even idyllic. It’s that Stibbe narrates it with such good-humour, such lack of mean-spiritedness (which doesn’t mean she isn’t judgmental, grumpy, frustrated, etc.).
Love, Nina is a joy because Stibbe has no problem laughing at her own foibles. People like this—my very best friend in the world is one, and it’s undoubtedly one of the reasons I’m so drawn to him—emanate a kind of ease that makes everyone feel good, a gift that I, irredeemably prickly and too-quickly offended, can only admire.
All of which is to say that Stibbe comes across, even in her child-like qualities, as mature and wise. Which is impressive since the book is really a coming of age story. (Hard to believe Stibbe was barely in her 20s when she wrote these letters.) The predominant narrative line tells the story of Stibbe’s acceptance into a Polytechnic where she studies literature. Stibbe becomes a proficient if not brilliant literary reader but never loses the skepticism that makes her immune to the most self-satisfied and airless qualities of the discipline. (Her struggle to complete her thesis on Carson McCullers—she soon decides she didn’t want to write about her—will be familiar to anyone who has embarked on a research project.) But Stibbe is cleverer than she likes to let on. She even allows herself a meta-moment about the best quality of her own book:
Me: Is the book OK?
Will: It’s hilarious.
Me: But you look so serious.
Will: I’m laughing on the inside.
Sam: I hate it when people laugh out loud when they read.
Will: Me too, that’s why I hide it.
Sam: They’re showing off about reading a funny book
Will: About finding it funny.
A[lan] B[ennett]: (from kitchen table) I think you’re allowed to laugh if something amuses you.
Sam: Not a book.
AB: I think one’s allowed an involuntary snort… or two,
When you dissolve into helpless laughter, as I did any number of times reading this book, you can decide if Sam & Will are right and you’re just showing off.
When I mentioned Stibbe’s “best quality” just now I meant her humour, of course. As I said, her book had me laughing out loud to the point of tears. My wife, who lovingly said it did her good to see me enjoying myself so much, and after asking me to read bits to her, which made me gasp further, kindly but firmly kicked me out of the bedroom. You can’t read this book just anywhere.
But in retrospect Stibbe’s best quality isn’t her humour. Nor is it her keen editorial eye. (She always knows exactly where to stop her transcriptions.) Instead, it’s her kindness, which appears in her openhearted respond to the gruff but loving Bohemianism of life at 55. She knows she was lucky to have landed with Wilmer and her sons, and even when she moves out, just around the corner, to go to school full time, she keeps coming back, like AB himself.
Late in the book she describes one of those evenings. The family is watching England play Germany on TV:
Sam: (speaking to Bobby Robson [England’s manager]) What do you go and pick two bloody Ipswich players for (taps the screen)?
MK: Stop tapping the screen.
Sam: (to Bryan Robson [team captain, no relation to Bobby]) Come on, Robbo.
MK: Stop putting your hands all over the screen.
Sam: Come on, England.
Sam: I can’t watch. I hate football.
Will: It’s only a friendly.
Sam: (to Bobby Robson) It’s only a friendly, Bobby (taps screen).
MK: Sam, stop touching the screen.
Sam: I can’t watch.
MK: Neither can we—all we can see is your hands.
I felt sad at the end. But I didn’t say anything.
I don’t think Mary Hope & co [her new landlords] watch much football whereas MK and S&W watch as much as possible. So I’ll have to come round here for it. Not that I like it much, but I like watching it with them. MK mentions if a player has nice hair and Sam puts the Vs up to the ref and Will covers his face at the tense bits. They’re just themselves watching football only more so.
As the title suggests, the letters all end “Love, Nina.” It’s a very loving book. Just the thing for this time of year, or any other.