I’ve had Love, Nina on my shelf for quite some time now, and last year, really enjoyed her debut novel Man at the Helm. After being quite taken with the first couple of episodes of Nick Hornby’s BBC adaptation (except for poor Alan Bennett’s portrayal – what a travesty!), it seemed a good moment to dig out the lovely-looking second hand paperback I’d acquired over a year ago.
As I’m sure most of you will know, Love, Nina opens with twenty-year old Nina, having just moved down from Leicester, taking up a position as a nanny at the home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books. Alan Bennett always popped in for tea, and Claire Tomalin, then literary editor of The Sunday Times lived just down the road. It was the 1980s ‘heart of literary London’.
There is a lot of fun to be had in reading Love, Nina. Sometimes it’s just the simple, slightly voyeuristic and slightly nerdy pleasure found in spotting the famous literati. Sometimes it’s Nina’s own blunt, not-quite-realising-she’s-being-rude way of telling it as it, or the fact that she initially thinks Alan Bennett might be off Corrie. And of course, who knew (other than those who know them…) that Mary-Kay Wilmers and her sons are so delightfully, yet cuttingly funny! I should probably have seen that one coming to be fair… Mary-Kay is a particular star of the book – unpredictable, and with a tone that varies between exasperation, as well as extreme tolerance. Alan Bennett isn’t given quite as much of a chance to shine – surely he does that by himself – but is revealed to be quite the handyman: fixing the fridge, bicycles, teaching them all the proper way to bash flower stems before putting them in a vase…and we also learn his curry recipe.
Only Nina’s letters to her sister Vic are published, which should feel jarring, but doesn’t, strangely. Nina doesn’t ask many questions of Vic; as Nina writes in the introduction, they were simply used to having ‘a nightly conflab’. They write for the rather touching pleasure of writing to one another.
Nina Stibbe clearly has a wonderful ear for dialogue. My long-suffering other half had to endure me reading quite a lot out to him – always greeted with polite chuckles. One of my favourites is
Me: What’s up?
Sam: It’s really bad. Tomalin’s wheelchair bumped into a moped and fell over and Tom fell out in the street and the moped fell on its side.
Me: Oh dear, was Tom OK?
Sam: Yeah I think so, he wasn’t hurt.
Me: Poor Tom. Poor you.
Will: Poor moped.
Fifteen minutes later.
Sam: Shall we go check on him?
Sam: Yeah, see if anyone’s helped him up.
Me: What? He’s still there?
Sam: Probably, maybe, I don’t know.
Me: What, you left him there?
Sam: Yeah, I came to get you.
Me: But, Sam, you’ve had a peanut butter sandwich.
Or generally any time Nina’s small falsehoods get caught out.
MK: (on phone) Have you nicked the Halliwell’s?
MK: The video card?
MK: What about the big stripy towel?
MK: The one with the green, blue and red stripes.
MK: I can see it in your room, right now, hanging on a chair.
Me: (pause) OK, I’ve got the towel but not the rest.
Love, Nina is a surprisingly, probably accidentally funny collection of letters. The affection she feels for the family shines off the page – and we can but wonder how they felt about her. A delightful, unforced and very pleasurable read.
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe is published by Penguin.