The Nanny Diaries, Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus

St. Martin’s, 2002, 368 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-98307-7

Who thought chick-lit could be a battleground for the war between the classes?

Actually, that’s not much of a stretch. Accepting the all-encompassing definition of check-lit as being fiction about the struggles of contemporary young women, it would be difficult to avoid issues of wealth or status, or lack thereof. Genre poster girl Bridget Jones had to choose between money and, er, more money. The Devil Wear Prada‘s Andrea Sachs is seduced away from her humble life by the high-flying pace of work at a fashion magazine. Even genre grandma Jane Austen had one or two things to say about class and privilege.

But few novel cut so deeply into big-money satire as The Nanny Diaries: by delving into the child-raising habits of the New York upper-class, McLaughlin and Kraus go straight to what made F. Scott Fitzgerald say “The rich are different from you and I.” As the unnamed narrator (always called “Nan”, but presumably as a diminutive for “Nanny” rather than “Nancy”) gets more deeply involved in the life of a jet-setting Manhattan family, she comes to discover the nasty secrets and deep-seated callousness of those who surround her. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but there are sharp claws under the smiles.

In some ways, it’s also a novel of anthropological discovery. Narrator Nan is not a newcomer to the New York upper set: herself raised in a comfortable middle class family, Nan goes into the nanny business knowing fully well what’s going on. The first chapter is a generic description of how those interviews usually go and which characteristics are most prized by the client parents:

I am white. I speak French. My parents are college educated. I have no visible piercings and have been to Lincoln Center in the past two months. I’m hired. [P.5]

It’s not as if Nan is being hired to take care of the kids while the mother is working, though: She’s been hired by a family whose mom is more interested in the socialite game than in the dirty business of raising a child. In fact, Nan is being hired as a surrogate mother, and therein lies the seething rage of the novel. Forget about the strict rules, the impossible schedules and the ridiculous pay: What really makes Nan furious is that the kid she’s been hired to supervise has no family ties to speak of: Dad’s working, Mom’s busy trying to recapture her beauty-model past and the kid’s just going to be a chore to them until he graduates college and makes enough money for the parents to brag about. The rich are different indeed, and if the largely middle-class bus-riding child-raising readership of the book isn’t seething at this abandonment of parental responsibility, then the authors haven’t succeeded. There’s also a bonus question: If Nan leaves, who’s going to keep the young one from growing into exactly the same person than his parents?

Because, oh yes, the parents are a walking collection of problems. Lady X is a predictable collection of neuroses, while Mister X isn’t particularly concerned with plebeian moral values such as fidelity. When Nan literally walks into those secrets, the tension cranks up. She may have taken the job for the money, but she’ll be lucky to escape with her grades, her morals and her sanity intact.

Plot-wise, there isn’t much going on here but the typical innocent-discovers-perversion storyline we’ve seen in so many permutations over the years. On the other hand, that template is a perfect canvas on which to paint scenes of New York upper-class madness. Nan is asked to do plenty of truly stupid jobs during her time serving the Xs, and every single one of those is a further glimpse into the casual cruelty of those used to exploit other people as a matter of day-to-day living. The prose is clean, the details are telling and the characters are effectively caricatured.

Ironically, it’s the protagonist herself that stops the novel from being completely successful as social commentary. Nan’s family is relatively comfortable, and yet the narrator seems to have a blind spot when it comes to that particular facet of her existence. Does she need the money so desperately when she could borrow some from the rest of her family? Is there such a gap between her clients and her family? Would the novel have been improved or diluted with a lower-class protagonist?

Of course, the danger with an even more rational protagonist is that she may not have lasted more than a week and a half as a nanny, and that would have been a much shorter novel. Never mind, then: Have a look at The Nanny Diaries if you’re looking for a glimpse at an alien subculture, or if you want to see how genre fiction can tackle bigger issues with a smile and a stiletto. That nanny in the corner may be working for you, but no amount of money may be enough to make her like you.

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