Friday, October 21, 2011

The Nanny Diaries

A few years ago, I downloaded this book onto my iPod, and every once in awhile (usually in between Harry Potter books) I listen to it again.

This book seems to have some amnesic spell, because every time I finish it, I tell myself I'll never listen to it again, but somehow, a few months or years later, I see its playlist and think, "Oh, The Nanny Diaries! Let's try that again." Clearly, I have a love-hate relationship with this book, but it was only during my most recent attempt to listen that I figured out why. 

Why I like The Nanny Diaries

My top reason for enjoying the book is a slightly guilty one. Like many women, I take great pleasure in reading about the lives of people who are more financially and socially advanced than I. We all love to peek into the world of designer clothes, impossible prep school standards, and outlandish parties given by self-obsessed Park Avenue housewives. I'm not sure where this pleasure comes from, but it explains the success of novels like Chasing Harry WinstonValley of the Dolls and The Ivy Chronicles, and young adult series like Gossip Girl.

The Nanny Diaries plays on this theme brilliantly, not only by painting this world vividly, but by making all of the Park Avenue parents irredeemably villainous. Mrs. X is selfish, unthinking and distant from her own child. Mr. X is cheating on his family without so much as a guilty thought. Other mommies and daddies talk casually about firing a hardworking nanny for the offense of asking for a week off months in advance, and moan about how hectic their lives are, although none of them work or physically care for their own children. The children are the victims, and the nannies are unwilling spectators, involved in their world but with a mind removed from the chaos. 

I also really enjoy the character of Greyer X, Nanny's little charge. His energy and four-year-old wisdom keep the book fresh through scene after scene of predictable actions by Mrs. X and reactions by Nan. On my recording, his voice is toned so cutely by the reader that my heart softens each time he speaks. I think it is mostly due to the reader's talents that I feel so warmly towards him.

Why I hate The Nanny Diaries

I can sum this up in one sentence (although I'm sure I'll have more to say after that sentence is over). I hate The Nanny Diaries because by the time I get halfway through the book, I want to reach inside it and strangle Nan. 

Nan is the supreme pushover. When Mrs. X orders her into a huge purple Teletubby costume on Halloween, she obeys without outward question, though with much inward grumbling. When Mrs. X asks her to make a gourmet meal for Greyer and eat it in the child's bathroom because she has company, Nan makes several phone calls trying to make sure she's cooking it correctly. These are just a few examples of the amount of rope Nan allows to hang herself with. That's not what drives me crazy, though. What I don't understand is this: Why is Nan such a pushover only in that aspect of her life? In her non-work life, she can clearly stand up for herself. She routinely battles the deans of NYU for her credit standing, she handles issues with her roommate without resorting to passive-aggressive behavior, and most telling of all, she tells off a group of her crush's friends in a bar for making deurrogatory comments about nannies- and she does this without hesitation or minced words. Why, then, can't she say a simple "No" to Mrs. X?

Contradictions in character can be a wonderful thing. An oncologist who secretly smokes, a dynamic female politician who can't fall asleep without her teddy bear- these are interesting contradictions that, if examined properly, can reveal deep insight into the character. But Nan's dual personality in her work and home lives is never explained. She's desperate to keep the job, but why? She's nannied before, and will do so again. She got the job easily- as an English-speaking child development major, she's in demand. Other than an attachment to Greyer, which I think can be overridden by her hatred of Mrs. X, what does she have to gain by being a doormat, when that's clearly not her personality? This is what makes me want to strangle her. 

The other issue I have is with the name "Nanny." The authors, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, wanted to make the point that Nanny represents all nannies, and that Mrs. X represents all Upper East Side employers. But I think Nanny's character is too disjointed for her to be considered an "everywoman," and Mrs. X's character is too one-sided to be real. Everyone has some redeeming quality, even rich mothers. McLaughlin and Kraus, who were burned by many an Upper East Side employer themselves, didn't choose to show that. 

Now that I've explored both sides of the coin, the question is: will my iPod recording live to hear another day? Will I pick up The Nanny Diaries again at a later date, and discover all that I both like and hate about it all over again? I'm pretty sure the answer to that is yes. 

My apologies to Future Leanne.

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