The Nanny Diaries: A Novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus St. Martin’s Press, 2002. 306 pages. $24.95.
This best-seller, written by a duo of first-time novelists, is a good example of the limits of social satire in contemporary American fiction. The writers, who were both nannies for rich Manhattan families (they claim to have worked for thirty Upper East side families, for a total of eight working years), sharply observe the goofiness of childrearing as an outsourced and consultant- and expert-saturated management task for the spoiled elite. The relationship between a socially unproductive mother and her surrogates in the form of abused nannies could hardly be exceeded for its potential to offer a devastating critique of money and power. And yet the writers of this book shy away from going full-blast after the rich and tyrannical parents, not to mention their precious little children in need of nanny services. The Nanny Diaries is written in an immensely entertaining vein as it piques our voyeuristic interest all along; but it stops well short of being a sustained social satire. It falls into the trap, again and again, of inviting sympathy and compassion for the very people deriving unfair benefit in the current economic structure, and for the progeny of this elite who will continue to run things on our behalf into the indefinite future.
Nanny works for the Xes. Mr. and Mrs. X have a faltering marriage–Mrs. X herself comes from a relatively insecure economic background, and has become a harsh taskmaster basking in the derived power glow of Mr. X, an investment banker making millions to finance their lifestyle. When not worried about the wily Ms. Chicago, one of Mr. X’s work associates, stealing her husband (it is already the second marriage for Mr. X), Mrs. X passes down orders to micro-manage every minute of her four-year-old son Grayer Addison’s time–French and piano lessons, play dates with fellow preschoolers (with names like Darwin and Benson, Iolanthe and Carson), while trying to get him into Harvard when he’s still a pre-schooler. One of the play dates turns out to be with the daughter of a crackhead mother, and at another date the home is divided by duct tape while a couple wait to divorce. Mr. X barely acknowledges Grayer, and Mrs. X happens to be unwinding at a spa while Grayer suffers from high fever and croup. Mrs. X has perfected a nimble sidestepping move (the “Spatula Reflex”) to avoid letting Grayer hug her, mussing up her Gucci togs. Certain parts of the apartment are strictly off-limits to Grayer, who must be fed such gourmet tot food as Coquilles St. Jacques. In short, Grayer has everything a child could desire for – except the smallest amount of love and attention from his parents.
This evokes the absolutely frantic overutilization of every single moment of one’s time in order not to face up to life’s real problems–the kind of useful occupation that leads directly to Harvard and other elite institutions – that social critics like David Brooks, and writers for the Atlantic Monthly on the college admissions race, have recently pointed out. However, just as Brooks and the writers with an inside perspective on the Ivy League admissions sweepstakes are constrained in their critique because they take no real issue with it–they see it as a mostly benign use of time, although taken to somewhat of an excess, because it leads to well-rounded, genuinely curious individuals rather than the disorderly, overly idealistic young adults of thirty years ago–so is McLaughlin and Kraus’s satire of the overemployment of Grayer’s time restrained by an implicit endorsement of the faux intellectual values of the upper class.
Twenty-one-year-old Nan, or Nanny–yes, she claims that to be her name–herself went to a private school and comes from a relatively prosperous background, but is trying to work her work through college. She is a senior at NYU majoring in child development (she has quit Brown to be at NYU, although it’s never quite explained why). It’s also never quite explained why Nanny would subject herself to the abuse heaped by Upper East side denizens, instead of getting a stable research, or even library, job at NYU–as her mother insists she should. We are supposed to think that Nanny is getting some kind of valuable direct experience helpful to her academic studies in child development, but this is never made clear beyond a general conviction on our part that Nanny simply loves kids and is reluctant to leave Grayer because the two have bonded (she puts a quick end to her bouts of “self-pity” with, “I just can’t leave Grayer”). This is a bit difficult to accept in the face of the stealing of her time, especially as it affects her academics (This from Mrs. X: “I understand that you have your academic obligations, but I am, frankly, alarmed by your lack of awareness of such a situation [finding a puddle of urine beneath the small garbage can in Grayer’s bathroom].”). Even more difficult to understand is Nanny’s sympathy for Mrs. X, especially as Nanny tries to spare her knowledge of Mr. X’s affair. At one point, Nanny is ecstatic to receive a pair of discarded Prada shoes from Mrs. X, but after overworking during Christmas she is disappointed to receive only a pair of earmuffs rather than a substantial bonus for helping out with parties, shopping, and caring for hordes of children. One possible explanation for why Nanny doesn’t simply quit is the attraction of being in close proximity to extreme wealth and power, although the authors don’t directly address this, except in a tantalizing hint at the very end.
As Nanny is forced to dress up as a Teletubby for Halloween, frantically search for Ms. Chicago’s black lace panties at the Xes’ apartment so that Mrs. X won’t discover them, miss part of her own graduation celebration to be with the Xes at a Nantucket vacation from hell (nannies know to avoid vacations with their employers, whether at Nantucket or Paris or Aspen, because this is when the full slave treatment is meted out, round-the-clock), and commiserate with even more poorly treated third world nannies, the lone bright spot in her life is a dalliance with a Harvard hunk on the eleventh floor of the Xes’ apartment building. This affair seems to have been thrown in to fill out Nanny’s life apart from working for the Xes, and it has undertones of Bridget Jones and Sex and the City female insecurity. In being attracted to the walking collection of status and power symbols that is the Harvard guy, Nanny herself seems infected by the thirst for social superiority that is the bane of the Xes and their like among the power elite.
McLaughlin and Kraus have the courage to want to take us behind the scenes of power relationships that are fully disguised and made palatable to employees and the rest of society by the veneer of gentility that masks the underlying brutality. The authors say, in the Prologue called “The Interview,” this about the potential employer, Mrs. X – who is seeking a new nanny for Grayer–and all others like her:
She is always tiny. Her hair is always straight and thin; she always seems to be inhaling and never exhaling. She is always wearing expensive khaki pants, Chanel ballet flats, a French striped T-shirt, and a white cardigan. Possibly some discreet pearls. In seven years and umpteen interviews the I’m-mom-casual-in-my-khakis-but-intimidating-in-my-$400-shoes outfit never changes. And it is simply impossible to imagine her doing anything so undignified as what was required to get her pregnant in the first place.
We recognize this instantly and are launched on our sympathy for Nanny. The Xes’ apartment “strikes . . .[Nanny] like a hotel suite–immaculate, but impersonal.” But the pretense must be kept up at all times that something less crass than mere rendering of personal services for money is involved. A higher calling must be invoked, as it invariably is in other exploitative work situations:
We will dance around certain words, such as “nanny” and “child care,” because they would be distasteful and we will never, ever, actually acknowledge that we are talking about my working for her. This is the Holy Covenant of the Mother/Nanny relationship: this is a pleasure–not a job. We are merely “getting to know each other,” much as I imagine a John and a call girl must make the deal, while trying not to kill the mood. Such well-observed passages abound on every page of the book, and should give immense pleasure to all those who have been on the receiving end of a false appreciation that is meant to forestall real rebellion. Nanny must present her baby-sitting experience as a “passionate hobby, much like raising Seeing Eye dogs for the blind,” and convince Mrs. X of her “desire to fulfill . . .[her] very soul by raising a child and taking part in all stages of his/her development; a simple trip to the park or museum becoming a precious journey of the heart.” The brutalizing work begins, of course, once she’s convinced Mrs. X that taking care of her child would be a “privilege,” an “adventure.”
During the generic Tour of the home, Nanny will find that the mistress “may pour an awful lot of Perrier in . . .[the] kitchen, but she never actually eats here,” the “refrigerator is always bursting with tons of meticulously chopped fresh fruit separated into Tupperware bowls and at least two packs of fresh cheese tortellini that her child prefers without sauce,” and the pantry overflows “with every type of juice box, soy milk, rice milk, organic pretzel, organic granola bar, and organic raisin the consulted nutritionist could think up.” Then there is the “List” of rules:
Allergic to dairy. Allergic to peanuts. Allergic to strawberries. Allergic to propane-based shellac. Some kind of grain. Won’t eat blueberries. Will only eat blueberries–sliced. Sandwiches must be cut horizontally and have crusts. Sandwiches must be cut in quarters and have NO crusts. Sandwiches must be made facing east. She loves rice milk! He won’t eat anything starting with the letter M. All servings are to be pre-measured–NO additional food is permissible. All juice is to be watered down and drunk out of a sip glass over the sink or in the bathtub (preferably until the child is eighteen). All food is to be served on a plastic place mat with paper towel beneath bowl, bib on at all times. Actually, “if you could get Lucien naked before eating and then hose her down afterward, that would be perfect.” NO food or drink within two hours of bedtime. NO additives. NO preservatives. NO pumpkin seeds. NO skins of any kind. NO raw food. NO cooked food. NO American food.
and . . .(voice drops to a pitch only whales can hear) NO FOOD OUTSIDE THE KITCHEN!
This phase of the recruitment drive is meant to inculcate the feeling that nanny and mother are in this together. Nanny notices that the “distance of the child’s room from the parents’ room always runs the gamut from far away to really, really far away. In fact, if there is another floor this room will be on it.” If the tot wakes up from a nightmare he might have to “don a pith helmet and flashlight to go in search of her parents’ room, armed only with a compass and fierce determination.” The Child Zone, which comes in a d?cor of Mondrian primary colors or Bonpoint, Kennedy pastels is “an adult’s conception of a child’s room.” When Nanny gets to “meet the boy in the bubble” she is expected to perform the “Play-With-Child portion of the audition” with aplomb, becoming “psychotically animated.”
The point of this whole setup is to lay out the devices meant to show attention without giving real attention that have multiplied beyond all reason. The child may get to eat certain kinds of expensive food, but not eat a real meal with the mother. Extravagant d?cor, but no stable play companion. Brutally engineered schedules–as busy as mother’s own socialite comings and goings–but no spontaneous fun. Later, Nanny will find each piece of Mrs. X’s underwear carefully classified: “Each pair of panties, every bra, every pair of stockings, is individually packed in a Ziplock baggy and labeled: ‘Bra, Hanro, white,’ ‘Stockings, Fogal, black.'” Mass displacement of personal anxiety onto object fetish. No box for any variety of sadness.
When Nanny says that she “enjoys working with kids,” this is the point where her social satire falls apart. We get the sense that she really does love kids–even the bratty offspring she is paid to be slave to–and that there might be something profoundly noble and unparalleled in taking on this function, if the mother is incapable. The problem occurs when McLaughlin and Kraus not only accept the ridiculous basic ground-rules but go on to outdo the educationists, nutritionists, and consultants in resurrecting a figure of the caregiver that is all-giving, all-forgiving, all-compassionate, and all-foreseeing–a little goddess on earth, temporarily denied her just deserts by parents too blind to recognize the value of her priceless devotion but bound to meet with Grayer’s undying gratitude in heaven. Or at least once she has her own children. Nanny is not dissembling when she says that she likes working with kids–and that’s true for the other nannies we meet in the book too, even if they are relieving the mothers involved to do more trivial things than wanting to know what their own child might really be feeling.
With this limited satirical aim–take the reader behind the scenes to show the callousness of the rich and fraudulent, but don’t fundamentally question the very notion of the kinds of learning and experience supposed to be ideal for children–the harshness of Mrs. X in devaluing the real magnitude of Nanny’s services becomes only a matter of better compensation. If Nanny had been given generous bonuses for going beyond the call of duty, if she had not been shut out in favor of hiring a more pliant nanny once she shows some spine by failing to immediately report for vacation duty, if she had been allowed to maintain the sense of continuity and stability that Grayer needs–would that have been enough? With the Harvard hunk to take her mind off caregiving once in a while, of course. How has Nanny mustered up the will to go along with supervising children in minutely structured schedules? Is accepting the rigor of a schedule such as the following complicity, masochism, or sheer stupidity?
MONDAY 2-2:45: Music lesson, Diller Quaile, 95th Street between Park and Madison (Parents pay an astronomical sum for this prestigious music school where four-year-olds usually sit in stone-cold silence as their caregivers sing nursery rhymes in a circle.)
5-5:45: Mommy and Me, 92nd Street Y on Lexington (As the name implies, mothers are expected to go. Nevertheless, half of the group is nannies.)
TUESDAY 4-5:00: Swimming lesson at Asphalt Green, 90th Street and East End Avenue (One emaciated woman in a Chanel swimsuit and five nannies in muumuus all pleading with toddlers to “Get in the water!”)
It goes on in this vein for the rest of the week, including physical education, karate, piano lesson, French class, and ice skating. Mrs. X adds that “in the event of a class cancellation the following ‘nonstructured’ outings are permissible”:
The Frick The Met The Guggenheim Soho The Morgan Library The French Culinary Institute The Swedish Consulate Orchid Room of the Botanical Garden New York Stock Exchange Trading Floor The Angelika (Preferably the German Expressionist series, but anything with subtitles will do.)
Now this is very funny, especially the unstructured activity allowed at the NYSE trading floor. But there is a sense in which Nanny too–author as well as character–comes from a relatively similar milieu herself, if not quite as well-off and harshly engineered. Is there a compulsion for Nanny too to feel preoccupied all her time, and not have too many unstructured activities of her own? Is that why she would choose this job over less stressful ones, although her ostensible reason is that it pays better? Grayer’s and other toddlers’ play dates can be seen as a less grown-up version of Nanny’s highly scheduled, squeezed-in, expectation-less dates with the Harvard hunk. There is an impression of parallelism between the perennial crisis-orientation of taking care of Grayer’s emotional and physical needs, not to mention both his parents’, and Nanny’s own hectic undergraduate educational experience. There doesn’t seem to be a sense in which Nanny, author or character, really dislikes this frantic pace. If it were to be slowed down, what would take its place? That’s the part the book isn’t bold enough to interrogate.
There’s a sense too in which Nanny seems to take some degree of delight in helping to orchestrate brilliant parties on behalf of Mrs. X, almost envying others who have this art down pat, although not desiring quite the same degree of perfectionism. But put Nanny in a marriage in an Upper East Side locale with a Mr. X (or the Harvard hunk) and would she dare to violate the norms of taste and elegance to any great degree? She may not insist on lavender water by L’Occitane as a “cleaning tool,” and she may not even know what it is for, but Nanny’s mother sure knows that “you pour it in your iron and it makes your rented tablecloths smell like the south of France.”
What is disturbing is to not radically question the discrepancy in the degree of advantage lavished on children of different classes, Grayer earning all on his own more than hundreds if not thousands of less-privileged children. Mrs. X has no sense of irony when she jots a note for Nanny to discuss with her some tips on “Mommy, Are You Listening?–Communication and Your Preschooler” from the Parents League meeting, but Nanny herself has bought into the materialist bargain to the extent that she can no longer heed her own deepest emotional needs–or rather, she has learned to sacrifice them for whatever practical task awaits, in the furtherance of both her own career (all of this, ostensibly, is to pay for an NYU undergraduate education and afford Manhattan housing, even if only of the most decrepit and minuscule kind) and that of Grayer, for whom her affection never falters. Even when Grayer is cruel, Nanny fails not to love–love will turn him around. Nanny’s love is only a sideshow, a needed complement, to the kind of unintimate intimate relationship (between husband and wife, and mother and child) that current power relationships of the sexual and social types demand.
It’s funny when Nanny skims the how-to titles in Mrs. X’s bookcase:
Why Should You Have the Baby? Stress and the Fertility Myth They’re Your Breasts Too: The New Wet Nurse Guide Sooner or Later We All Sleep Alone: Getting Your Infant Through the Night Taking the Bite Out of Teething The Zen of Walking–Every Journey Begins with a First Step The Idiot’s Guide to Potty Training The Benefits of the Suzuki Method on Your Child’s Left Brain Development The Body Ecology Diet for Your Toddler Making the Most of Your Four-Year-Old How to Package Your Child; The Preschool Interview Make it or Break it: Navigating Preschool Admissions
right on up to
City Kids Need Trees; The Benefits of a Boarding School Education The SATs–Setting the Scene for the Rest of Your Child’s Life
Nanny makes the point well that this is making simple things too complicated–relying on so-called expert advice rather than one’s own instinct. This is the familiar tactic of escaping into learning about learning rather than learning by doing. But Nanny would at best moderate the skills acquisition regime. Would she not want her own children to get into the best private schools and universities? True, she doesn’t seem all that embarrassed about being at NYU rather than Brown–or Harvard – but NYU is NYU, not Brooklyn College. There’s never really an answer to why Nanny would let herself be subjected to such exquisite torture as dressing up as a Teletubby for Halloween, even if it means being humiliated in front of her Harvard Hottie, H. H. Notice Nanny’s excitement at the gift of the Prada shoes which “really are too much for . . .[Mrs. X]” and whose color Mr. X “doesn’t care for”: PRADA! P-R-A-D-A. As in Madonna. As in Vogue. As in, watch me walk off in style, you khaki-wearing, pager-carrying, golf-playing, Wall Street Journal-toting, Gangsta-Hip-Hop-listening, Howard Stern-worshipping, white-hat-backward-sporting, arrogant jerk-offs!
Fine shades of difference in class exultation, but the idea is essentially the same as Mrs. X’s.
Nanny is herself afflicted with the Mrs. X syndrome, only at a lower degree of virulence. Mrs. X viciously competes for scraps of attention from the easily diverted and philandering Mr. X–Nanny is not too upset about the haphazardness of the fortuitous encounters with H. H. The first time he expects to meet her, he gives her several different locations around the city where he might be found on Halloween night. Nanny ends up making a mad dash for all of these places, only to miss him. But she’s not one to complain. When Nanny bumps into H. H. in the elevator while caroling, she notes to herself: “Make no bones about it; I am a girl with a mission. I am here to get a Date. A Real Date with a plan and a location and everything.” Shades of Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw. Such determination.
At the Halloween party, Mrs. X’s friends talk about “professional problem consultants” who put things in perspective for the mothers, help who’re “just sitting there, on our dime” when the “kids are in class,” and toddlers who must interview for coveted kindergarten places with their competitive edges sharp. This chatter goes on while “it seems as though every unemployed actor in the tristate area has been called in to entertain the troops.” But it’s a little disingenuous for Nanny to be taking notes on this; she, after all, is supposed to be training in child development at NYU, which might have a sounder theoretical foundation, to be sure, but is after all the kind of pseudo-intellectual discipline that down the pipeline spouts the professional problem consultants in the first place. One has a sophisticated academic veneer, and parades in academic gowns; the other hurtles along Park Avenue in flashy outfits. Where is Nanny’s real sympathy for the troupe of unemployed actors, human props to the glitterati?
Everyone collaborates–otherwise, misery is not possible. Nanny’s compassion goes so far as to protect Mrs. X from finding out about her husband’s cheating with Ms. Chicago–it is difficult to understand why she would want to organize a massive night-long hunt with her friends around the Xes’ apartment once Ms. Chicago drops a hint that she’s left a pair of panties there. Nanny’s mother helps her figure out how to deal with Grayer’s illness, when Mrs. X is AWOL. When Mrs. X finds out about her husband’s two-timing, Nanny notes sympathetically that “her low sobs give way to a deep, animal-like keening” as she closes the door behind her. Whether she wants to or not, Nanny does a great job of humanizing the ruling class, prompting us almost to think of them as pampered children who don’t know any better–if only there were nannies for the men and women of the moneyed class, or nannies in their childhood who’d done a better job of making them more compassionate. We do feel sorry for Mrs. X when her efficiency and ruthlessness sheds for a while as her personal life begins to fall apart. But this uncertainty only gets redirected into even stronger control over Grayer’s emotions, as she hires a “Long-term Development Consultant” to handle Grayer’s disappointment at not getting into the school of their choice, Collegiate. That, not a hug. But the entire system collaborates in finding technical solutions to human problems, so it’s not as if the consultant is an exception to the rule. Nanny, subjected to the consultant’s importuning of her to consider a “series of Best Practices from other caregivers” to “review and internalize” in order to let “Grayer . . . reach his optimal state,” only seems overawed – as she does by numerous overcontrolling managerial gestures of Mrs. X’s. Nanny never once verbalizes to Mrs. X her real emotions, such as this: “No, I wasn’t out late at my graduation party. No, you take your time–I’ll just sit here in the cold drizzle. No, I think what’s important is that I’m here, in Nantucket, and that you and your family can rest easy just knowing I am somewhere within a ten-mile vicinity of you. I think what’s important, you know, paramount really, is that I’m not off living my life, attending to whatever I need to be doing, but am permanently on pause for you and your fucking family–”
In a half-hearted gesture of liberal tokenism, McLaughlin and Kraus introduce a fortyish nanny who used to be an engineer in San Salvador and is forced to be away from her husband and sons because her husband couldn’t get a green card. This particular nanny is physically abused by her charge, Darwin. Nanny notes, “I while away the afternoon with a woman who has a higher degree than I will ever receive, in a subject I can’t get a passing grade in, and who has been home less than one month in the last twenty-four.” Solidarity with third world sisters and all that, and let’s move on. Actually, Nanny does encounter other third world, particularly Caribbean, help, but the perverse point of realization for her seems to be: I don’t have it as bad as these women, I can always exit this profession once I have my NYU degree, so I shouldn’t really complain too much. At least Grayer doesn’t bodily harm me.
Why not take a less abusive job? McLaughlin and Kraus introduce the idea of a “real, honest-to-goodness job with set hours and an office where the boss’s underwear isn’t drying in the bathroom” but offer for Nanny only a phony liberal job, “the opportunity to join a conflict-resolution team for city schools” that turns out to be as fraught with personal conflict and tension as her existing job. The authors set this job, at the “Communities Against Conflict” organization, in mangy, squalid South Bronx–as far away from the Upper East Side as one can get. Here we find Reena and Richard, the authors’ stereotypes of flaky counterculture types for whom the sixties never ended, and whose multicultural feel-good project is as dominated by bureaucracy and consultancy as the Upper East side private child-rearing mission. Couldn’t there be a more sympathetic character than Richard, the artistic director, to offer Nanny a reasonable (liberal) job?:
[Richard explains] about his decades spent in social work, how he met up with Reena at a rally against the superintendent, their years traveling the globe to gather methodologies for conflict resolution, and the host of ‘virtually thousands of kids’ that he has personally trained to ‘make the world a better place.’ He also goes on extensively about his misguided childhood, the ‘illegitimate’ son who doesn’t call him anymore, and his recent attempts to quit smoking.
McLaughlin and Kraus plug into the contemporary disdain for collective projects of any kind–the realness of Grayer, even if he is a spoiled brat, is palpable, concrete, attachable, compared to grandiose abstract missions of the sixties kind to leave no child behind. Reena and Richard share a liberal, touchy-feely version of the faltering state of communication between Mr. and Mrs. X. The implication clearly is, Where else is it any better? This is pessimism worked in by the (Bronx) backdoor, just so we stop wondering why Nanny doesn’t just up and leave the Park Avenue tyrants. Besides, Nan is not in the running for the Communities Against Conflict job anyway; they’re looking for diversity, having “gotten way too many resumes from white girls.” Disappointed (or relieved?), sitting at a Burger King, Nanny ponders: “Somewhere out there must be people who believe in a middle ground between demanding children to ‘feel their rage’ and overprogramming children so everyone can pretend they don’t have any.” But Nanny is convinced that she’s “not going to be finding it anytime soon.” The distinction is two sides of the same coin, in any case.
The constraint to finding realistic options–reviving a liberal, humanist culture–is the extreme lack of security everyone (yes, even Mr. X, and certainly Mrs. X) experiences. Fellow socialite Caroline tells Mrs. X about one of their friends looking for a studio (the pity, the pity) because “even though her ex-husband was the one c-h-e-a-t-i-n-g, none of the assets were in his name.” Despite her nice corporate job, Ms. Chicago is trying to land Mr. X, in a search for greater security. A vicious cycle of impotence, and its inevitable consequence in brutal repression, has its cause in an end to secure employment at all levels. The mistresses of this realm catch potential abuse by nannies on “the Nannycam,” sending the nannies “right back to whatever third world village . . .[they] crawled out of.” Mrs. X, without Nanny’s knowledge at first, has also set up a Nannycam: “NANNYCAM??! NANNYCAM???!!! What’s next? Periodic drug tests? Strip searches? A metal detector in their front hall? Who are these people?” That’s some liberal pretense on the part of Nanny–as if these surveillance mechanisms are not already an integral part of the American workplace. The Nannycam is only the technological manifestation of the culture-wide pretense that everything is as it should be: that American workers are hard-working, caring, loyal, and interested in (corporate) causes beyond themselves, that family members think of themselves as indispensable components of a larger whole (the sum is greater than its parts). When Nanny tries to warn Mrs. X about Ms. Chicago (as if she doesn’t know) at the moment of her firing in Nantucket, Mrs. X responds:
“You fucking child.” She comes back at me in this two-and-a-half-foot space with all the force of years of suppressed rage and humiliation. “You. Have no idea. What you’re talking about. Is that clear?” Each word feels like a punch. “And I’d be very careful. If I were you. How you regard our family–“
In turn, after getting sacked and returning to New York before the Xes do, Nanny could have used the Nannycam to leave a vicious, vengeful message (“I’VE BEEN RAISING YOUR SON!”) to Mrs. X. But she decides on a mildly liberal appeal to the couple to pay more attention to their child (” . . [Grayer] just wants you there.”). Nanny seems to have great respect for the immense potential of mischief when messages, or actions, are recorded on tape without immediate presence and ability to respond.
After Nanny makes the journey from Nantucket back home by bus (compared to her arrival there on the Horners’ private plane), her return to the seedy Port Authority terminal (“Outside the Eighth Avenue exit hookers and cab drivers await their next jobs”) makes us almost nostalgic for the magnificence she has left behind, even if it is laced with human cruelty. Making a last trip to the Xes’ home, she remarks: “Even now, even as it’s gotten this out of hand, I’m distracted from my thoughts of the Xes by the trappings of the Xes. And really, it strikes me, isn’t that the point?” There, she’s finally made explicit what we’ve suspected all along. But throughout this book there is no suggestion that there really is a way out of this class envy. So another instance of satire that can also be interpreted as disguised envy is the “impromptu barbecue” at the Benningtons’ during the Nantucket holiday:
I stand there, absorbing the realization that there is no way my wedding is going to be as nice as this informal little barbecue. It’s not just that the impeccably manicured lawn goes right down to the water, or that everything is in full bloom, or that another man in a white jacket is tending bar, serving ice cubes that all have grapes frozen in them, while a third flips filet-mignon burgers; it’s not even that tables with starched floral tablecloths have been set up all over the lawn; what finally gets me are the watermelons sculpted into the busts of former presidents.
If only McLaughlin and Kraus had gone deeper in asking why Nanny should be propelled at all to try to “sell” Mrs. X on her own child. Mrs. X has no sense of boundaries in placing demands on Nanny’s time, but neither does any work obligation in capitalism. It is easy for middle-class readers to feel superior to the lovelessness in the upper class–as the refrain goes, money can’t buy everything, especially the “priceless” things we’re familiar with from TV commercials – but this is a false sense of superiority, since not many readers of this book would refuse to trade in their financially less secure positions to be in the (Prada) shoes of the elite depicted in this book. So can there really be a sense of indignation at abusive relationships, if underneath our perception is a layer of envy, or at least ambition to emulate?
ANIS SHIVANI studied economics at Harvard, and is the author of two novels, The Age of Critics and Memoirs of a Terrorist. He welcomes comments at: Anis_Shivani_ab92@post.harvard.edu