Book Review: Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

In September 1982, twenty-year old Nina Stibbe began working as a nanny in London and writing regular letters to her sister back home in Leicestershire. This would have been unremarkable to anyone other than Nina and her sister had it not been for two critical facts: the woman Stibbe was nannying for was Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books and friends with half of 1980s literary London; and Nina Stibbe happens to be both a brilliantly funny story-teller and a wry observer of domestic life.

Over the course of five years, Stibbe details the comings and goings at 55 Gloucester Crescent (arguably one of the nicest addresses in London). Alan Bennett comes for dinner nearly every night: he criticises Nina’s Hunter’s Stew (for containing tomatoes), discusses penis-shaped graffiti and advises on the merits of mashed potatoes. Nina borrows a saw from Jonathan Miller (the theatre director she mistakes for an opera singer), is appalled by the thick black eyeliner worn by theatre critic Susannah Clapp and wonders why Mary-Kay suddenly starts wearing two shirts at once: ...even with silk ones it looks like you’ve already forgotten to put your shirt on. 

All these encounters are relayed with the kind of unselfconscious humour you’d only find in writing that was intended to be private correspondence: Stibbe isn’t trying to be funny. She simply is funny. Very funny indeed.

On Mary-Kay’s mother’s ‘helper’:

...when I had to trim Sam’s hair... she stood right by us and criticised my method. Not that she’s a hairdresser; she’s just an ordinary posh person who’s been taught to share her opinions with all and sundry.

Or when Stibbe gets pulled over by a policeman for not wearing a seatbelt:

I thought he might notice my feet (bare).... So to prevent it I looked him right in the eye... He will have thought I was mad but he didn’t see my feet and that was the point. Sometimes you just have to appear mad to prevent a serious consequence.

Stibbe also has a perceptive ear for dialogue (she should really write a screenplay one day) and her record of conversations (often at meal-times - food is subject of much discussion - and tension - at Gloucester Crescent) are what bring the family and their friends to life. Here are the children she’s looking after - Sam and Will - on smoking:

Sam: I’m going to smoke one per day, walking to the tube.

Will: What about walking back from the tube?

Sam: Two per day, then.

Will: What about after dinner?

Sam: Stop encouraging me, I’m just having one per day.

What makes this book so special - and what has no doubt propelled it deservedly to the top of many Best Books of 2013 lists just weeks after publication - is not just that it’s funny or charming or quietly insightful or immensely readable. It’s not just that it draws you in so warmly to a home you’ve never visited and to lives of people you’ve never met. It’s not just that you immediately want to buy it for everyone you know.

It’s that Love, Nina manages to do all of those things in a single book. And that really is a remarkable achievement.