Entertaining first half
A book of letters from the author to her sister.
THE premise of Love, Nina: Despatches From Family Life is simple: the entire book consists of letters Stibbe wrote to her sister, Victoria.
Why would we want to read the letters written by an unknown writer living and working in London to her sister in Leicestershire? It’s the people Stibbe is working for that makes the exchange of information and ideas interesting.
In the introduction, Stibbe lets us know that at the age of 20 she left her family home in Leicestershire in 1982 to live and work as a nanny in London. The family that Stibbe ends up with is not your ordinary working family: the matriarch of the household is Mary-Kay Wilmers, who was then deputy editor of theLondon Review Of Books. (Wilmers has been editor of the London Review Of Books since 1992.) The two boys that Stibbe is nanny to are Sam and Will Frears, whose father is the acclaimed film director Stephen Frears. Playwright, writer (of novels and screenplays) and occasional actor Alan Bennett (referred to throughout the memoir as AB) is a neighbour who, for some unexplained reason, seems to come to the Wilmers household almost daily for dinner. This is certainly not your average, run-of-the-mill household.
With the celebrities that litter London and occasionally stop by the Wilmers household, one would expect salacious tales of the popular figures of the early 1980s. Sadly, apart from Bennett’s entertaining musings over the dinner table, Stibbe does not share any such stories with her readers. A prime example is the fleeting appearance of Stephen Frears, who was mentioned only twice in the entire memoir, despite the fact that he is the ex-husband of Wilmers and father to Sam and Will.
Bennett aside, the only other celebrity run-in that Stibbe shares is when she runs into comedian Rik Mayall in the supermarket. “Rik Mayall had done something with Stephen [Frears] and he came around to the house once. But when we met by accident in the supermarket, he did not seem recognise who I was. He bought cream crackers,” Stibbe wrote to her sister. While it may be exciting for her sister to read that Stibbe ran into Mayall in a supermarket of all places, the excitement does not translate well some 20 years later. Her anecdote of meeting the alternative comedian seems flat and uninteresting.
The people who feature greatly in her memoir are Sam and Will, the two boys Stibbe looks after. From her letters, it is obvious that Stibbe had a solid bond with the two boys. (Though she mentions it in scant detail, Sam suffers from an extremely rare genetic disorder affecting only Ashkenazi Jews; though Wilmers and Frears were told that he would only live up to the age of five, Sam celebrated his 41st birthday in 2013.)
Like most families with two pre-pubescent boys, swear words and talk of football and anatomy (male and female) litter the kitchen, where Stibbe spends most of her time trying to improvise on various recipes given to her by Victoria and even Bennett. It is her letters to Victoria detailing the gastronomic likes and dislikes of the two boys and their conversations around the dinner table that gets the laughter going. Through Stibbe’s writings, readers get a glimpse into the lives of two witty and sharp minded boys.
The memoir is broken into two parts: the first part covers 1982-1984, when Stibbe lived and worked full-time for Wilmers, and the second part covers 1984-1987, when Stibbe moved to the other end of London, to attend Thames Polytechnic.
Despite no longer being a full-time staff post-1984, Stibbe still comes around to the Wilmers household to have chats with Mary-Kay and hang out with Sam and Will.
Though the Wilmers household is the place that Stibbe goes to frequently, the second part of her memoir has Stibbe describing her lectures and fellow students, and trying to impress a lecturer. It is at this juncture that her memoir becomes more despatches from student life than family life. Though interesting, parts of her letters here seem draggy and long-winded, without much point.
Love, Nina: Despatches From Family Life is a mixed bag. The first part of the memoir does live up to its title – it is entertaining to read about life in a somewhat famous household in the early 1980s, and the almost-permanent fixture of Bennett at the dinner table. (Admittedly, at the start of the book, this reviewer felt that Alan Bennett came across as pretentiously aloof; however, as the memoir progresses, Bennett turns out to be witty, if still somewhat pretentious. His “fight” with Stibbe over who had the best salad during a dinner party is frightfully hilarious.)
The one-sided conversation can become a tad monotonous – particularly in the second part of the memoir, where Stibbe seemed to be whinging about fellow students and her crush. Three years’ worth of university life summed up in whinging letters to Victoria can get on readers’ nerves.
Another down-turn is that Stibbe does not share the social, political or economic landscape of Britain of the 1980s; throughout her memoir, Stibbe seems to place her existence in a bubble, untouched by the outside world. Readers can only imagine what life must have been like in Thatcherite Britain and wonder about the cringe-worthy fashion of the times.
The negatives aside, Stibbe is a funny writer and her book is readable. Her tales of having to compete with a part-time Spanish housekeeper are hilarious; it is just sad that such entertainment did not emerge from her university life.
Love, Nina: Despatches From Family Life would not appeal to everyone. Those who either fancy reading about the minute details of everyday family life or wish to have a laugh at a book that has essentially no plot would find some comfort in it. Those that prefer something with more direction would be disappointed, I think.