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Childcare in the Ozone Layer
on January 10, 2006
THE NANNY DIARIES begins with a bang of achievement. Despite two authors, it launches the firm, singular voice of its young narrator and sustains it throughout her account of working as a nanny for Manhattan's affluent elite. In no time, our narrator, whose name is only given as "Nanny," is kicking up some social satire with often funny, dead-on impressions of the values, speech and methods of operation of the uppercrust. That the authors, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, based it on their own experiences as nannies certainly lends it a gossipy, roman a clef air that is borne out by tales of friends and a relative of mine who have attempted childcare or educational careers in that circle. In the predatory, slaveholding ethos of the very rich, nannies must be less than human and cease their usefulness when their humanity is asserted.
There are some flaws that prevent the book from being better than it is. The first and most serious can't be helped: the authors are good enough to portray the pathos of the little kids who are being run over by their parents' ambitions and neglect. The fact sits there like a lump in your stomach as the narration prattles on in a "lite" chick lit tone about how badly Mr. & Mrs. X--how the employers are identified--are treating Nanny. The trajectory of satire loses altitude past a certain point when it devolves into one turn of bad behavior after the next. One of the most knowing moments early in the book occurs when Nanny has an unpleasant encounter with wealthy frat boys at a bar: they are the product of parents like the Xes. You realize, this could well be the future of that sweet little boy in Nanny's charge. But then the authors undercut that with a meet-cute subplot about a boyfriend from the same stratosphere.
It's kind of like the authors bought the architecture of Edith Wharton as a teardown and replaced it with a particle board palace.