7: The Nanny Diaries

The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus

After finishing Dogs and Goddesses (shudder), I wanted to read something in a similar genre, rather than immediately fleeing to something I knew I’d like. The Nanny Diaries, also picked up at the VPL book sale, seemed to fit the bill: it’s not just chick lit; it’s also co-authored!

[Aside: I had this moment of cognitive dissonance when I first saw the authors’ names. Nicola Kraus? Didn’t I read another—very different—book by an author with that name? Well, close. That was Nicole Krauss.]

I picked this up mainly because I’d just seen the movie on TV and wondered how it compared. It turned out there wasn’t a whole lot of similarity between the two, and the only time Scarlett Johansson appeared in my head was when Nanny called Grayer “Grover” or “Grove” (for some reason, I heard Nanny say this—and only this—in Scarlett’s voice).

As a light read, this one works. There’s a single protagonist to focus on, an antagonist who is more than one-dimensional, and a story that takes adequate time to build and reach a conclusion. And, unlike the film, there’s no cliched happy ending. The book’s ending is much more ambiguous.

It’s supposed to be a satire (hence the X/Nanny thing), so the narrative focuses primarily on Nanny’s interactions with the X family, and leaves out the rest of her life when she is not with them. Nanny is mainly a filter (she doesn’t even get a real name) to showcase how awful the Xes (i.e. The Rich) are. I think we’re supposed to laugh at how ridiculous rich people are and thus feel better about our own, not rich, lives.

And it’s certainly readable on this level—but it’s also sort of throw away, you know? I think it would have been a better—more complete/complex—story if we had got more into Nanny’s head, spent more time with her, and understood her motivations better.

Nanny’s grandmother and parents live in NYC, and she is on speaking terms with them. So presumably, if she had to, she could have moved back home or moved in with grandma. We get the idea that she wants to support herself, live on her own (she shares a tiny apartment with a roommate), etc. but seems clear that—unlike most of the other nannies she comes into contact with—she has options. Not only the family safety net, but also other job options. She doesn’t have to be a nanny. So why is she doing it? The only clue that we get is that she’s studying early childhood education and she likes kids—oh, and she likes the pay.

She seems to come from (at least) an upper-middle-class background herself (went to a private school, is attending NYU, her grandmother seems to have connections, etc.). An explanation of NYC class relationships for those who aren’t familiar might have helped readers better understand why the Xes and their ilk would think this private-schooled, private university-attending young woman was so beneath them. Are they just insecure about their own status?

And then there’s school. She’s supposed to be a full-time student in her final year of undergrad—but this is totally glossed over! The only time it’s mentioned is when Mrs. X is preventing her from getting to class and/or paper-writing. She writes her thesis—her thesis—in 48 hours. I know it’s an undergrad thesis, but come on.

It would have been nice to see the Xes’ actions / Nanny’s commitment to the X family wreaking havoc on her education. That would be the logical consequence for someone in her situation, right? We see how other nannies are affected in terrible ways by the actions of their employers, but her year with the Xes seems to cost Nanny little more than lost sleep and a twinge of conscience over leaving Grayer; she breezes through school and even picks up a Harvard boyfriend along the way. This makes her a lot less sympathetic than she otherwise might have been.