NANNY FICTION BOOKS ATTRACT A WIDE AUDIENCE/NY TIMES
Nannies Still Draw a Keen Audience
Keith Bedford for The New York Times
“I was one of those anonymous women pushing a child on the Upper East Side.”
— Victoria Brown, the author of “Minding Ben.”
By FELICIA R. LEE
Published: July 13, 2010
Consider Marie, Lola and Grace, fictional nannies all.
Excerpt: ‘Bad Marie’ (harpercollins.com)
Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times
“Envy is something I’m interested in, in general.”
— Marcy Dermansky, the author of “Bad Marie.”
Marie sleeps with the husband of the family that’s hired her, kidnaps her charge and passes out drunk. Lola works two jobs to support five children back in the Philippines, furiously networks with other nannies and offers advice to a couple who are still mastering modern parenthood. Grace, a teenager who leaves Trinidad for New York, confronts her employers’ condescension while making friends, finding romance and learning the ropes about America from an established coterie of nannies.
Years after “The Nanny Diaries,” the satirical 2002 best seller that hit a cultural nerve, the nanny novel lives on, showcasing complex and imperfect nannies whose personal stories intersect with thorny larger questions about race, class, immigration and parenthood.
“There’s an ongoing cultural fascination with this rich drama that plays out in your own home,” said Lucy Kaylin, who did dozens of interviews for her 2007 nonfiction book, “The Perfect Stranger: The Truth About Mothers and Nannies” (Bloomsbury).
Most women (and men) work because they have to, Ms. Kaylin said, so “the completely out-of-touch idle rich lady bossing around an immigrant is becoming cliché,” Ms. Kaylin said. At the same time, “race is a huge issue, for sure,” she said. “The women I interviewed found themselves confronting biases in ways that shocked them.”
But tensions between employer and employee play out differently in the fresh wave of nanny novels.
In a darkly comic vein comes “Bad Marie,” by Marcy Dermansky (Harper Perennial), published last month, which tells the story of an emotionally scrambled ex-convict who cares for the daughter of a childhood friend.
Grace is the protagonist of “Minding Ben,” a title from Hyperion that is due out next year. Its author, Victoria Brown, based it on her own journey from Trinidad to New York, where she began working as a nanny at 16.
And in “My Hollywood” (Knopf), Mona Simpson alternates between the first-person voice of a young mother and composer named Claire and that of Lola, her 52-year-old Filipino housekeeper. “The novel has always, in a way, gravitated toward love and the family,” Ms. Simpson said in a telephone interview from her home in Santa Monica. “Novels used to end with the marriage: now we have divorce, blended families, test-tube babies, surrogate moms. Fiction is where we get to how these new arrangements work in life.”
And given that the nanny is not just an upper-crust luxury but an increasingly common figure in two-wage-earner homes, some old aspects of the nanny novel are far less apt, Ms. Simpson pointed out.
Forget the magical nanny, like “Mary Poppins,” or the impossibly demanding socialite mother Mrs. X of “The Nanny Diaries.” Ms. Simpson’s protagonist is strategic in getting and keeping work, counts every penny she sends back home to her children, and has a pragmatic relationship with her employers. They are levelheaded creative types in an egalitarian marriage that is upended by parenthood. No one is a villain. “I didn’t want to feature those extreme stereotypes,” said Ms. Simpson, who is divorced and has a 16-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. “They’re easy, but they let everybody off the hook in a certain way. I wanted to explore what it meant to be a nanny here, how they felt about their life here versus the way their employer felt, and the way it intersected.”
“My Hollywood,” which comes out next month, is Ms. Simpson’s first novel in 10 years. It shares themes of parental responsibility and guilt with her earlier work, like “Anywhere but Here” and “The Lost Father.” But the new book wades into the immigrant experience and uses patois to make Lola’s voice vivid.
“It’s sort of the dark magic of the global economy — if you have a well-paying job here, you’re making 10 times what you make there,” Ms. Simpson said of the foreign women who look after American children. “Of course we want our children to be loved, but there is an economic reality on both sides.”
Ms. Brown, now a 37-year-old wife and mother of two young children, has experienced both sides of the coin. “I went from being that nanny to being that mother,” Ms. Brown said in an interview in which she noted that she now has a baby sitter (whom she pointedly does not call a nanny).
She is a Brooklyn resident who is enrolled in the M.F.A. program at Hunter College, and began her journey from nanny to writer with classes at LaGuardia Community College, then enrollment in Vassar College as an English major after attending a summer program there. She wrote “Minding Ben” while finishing her master’s thesis in post-colonial literature at the University of Warwick in England.
“I was one of those anonymous women pushing a child on the Upper East Side,” Ms. Brown recalled. “I’d be in the building’s lobby with the little boy, and the neighbors would say hello to the little boy but not to me. There was a degree of invisibility. It may sound corny, but I wanted to give these women some inner life.”
The only major fiction in that vein that she could recall was “Lucy,” by Jamaica Kincaid, a 1990 novella about a young au pair from the Caribbean who works for a wealthy white family in New York. Ms. Brown said her novel had a broader canvas, even incorporating the 1991 clashes between blacks and Hasidic Jews in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
Besides writing “Bad Marie,” Ms. Dermansky is a film critic for About.com, and she admits that her book has something in common with the 1992 baby-sitter-from-hell film, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.”
But while her Marie is also a temptress, she loves the child she looks after and is motivated by envy, not by the thirst for vengeance that drives Rebecca DeMornay’s character in that much-imitated potboiler film. Marie covets the French novelist who is the husband of her employer, Ellen Kendall. Their competition goes way back: Marie slept with Ellen’s boyfriend in high school. Marie’s family is poor. Ellen’s family is rich.
“Envy is something I’m interested in, in general,” said Ms. Dermansky, interviewed in her home in the Astoria section of Queens, where she lives with her husband and daughter, Nina. “There’s always a house that’s better to play at, someone who has better toys.”
Because of their flexible schedules as writers, Ms. Dermansky and her husband only occasionally rely on a baby sitter to look after their daughter, now 11 months old. Employing a nanny, she said, is “a tricky thing to do” for all the usual reasons.
“I’m not against it,” she added, “but I feel lucky with my life right now.”