Okay, I’m now giving up all pretence of trying to finish reading the books on my shelves before buying new ones. I spotted this in Waterstones (apostrophe deliberately left out because I don’t know if it’s the name relates to one Waterstone or a group of them) in Aviemore and had to buy it, having loved the TV adaptation.
In 1982, the young Nina Stibbe escapes from Leicestershire and moves to London to work as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books. Her duties include looking after Mary-Kay’s two sons, cooking and as little housework as she can get away with (spoiler : very little). This is a far from ordinary household in a far from ordinary area – neighbours include the novelist Deborah Moggach, Ursula Vaughan Williams (widow of composer Ralph) and the playwright Alan Bennett, a regular – if not necessarily invited – dinner guest.
Nina’s exploits in the big City are conveyed through a series of letters to her sister, Vic. Her relationships with Mary-Kay, the boys, Alan Bennett et al, along with her romance with Nunny, the student who works as a temporary carer for another neighbour, are beautifully drawn through little anecdotes and snippets of conversation. By the end of the book I felt that I knew them personally.
Partway through the book Nina leaves Mary-Kay’s employment to study for a degree in English Literature. Although she remains a regular visitor I felt the book lost some of its charm here.
There has been minor controversy surrounding the book; Mary-Kay had reservations about its publication but was reportedly happy once she read it, Alan Bennett has expressed the opinion that Nina Stibbe “misremembered” him, and some readers suspect the letters have been heavily edited to make them more amusing than the originals. This may well be true, but “Love Nina” is still a little gem of a book, one that bears re-reading.