Friday, April 18, 2014

The Nanny Books, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

During my undergrad, I took an English course on books that had been made into films.  The prof picked books/flicks that I had never heard of, and that were ‘artsy’ – nowhere was there a Harry Potter flick, or a Globe and Mail best-seller.  At times, it was pretty boring.  But it did teach me a lot about how to view films that were based on books, and it gave me a deeper appreciation of how/why things make it to the screen.  That said, I still generally dislike book adaptations of movies; it’s bloody hard to get a novel distilled into a 60 page screen play, and it’s rarely done in such a way that I find it faithful enough to the book to enjoy it.  I’m the person you hear in the movie theater sighing, scoffing, and muttering “oh, come on!”  Having said all that, it’s almost impossible these days to find a book that’s not been turned into a movie, and it was after watching one of these flicks that I picked up my latest reads, The Nanny Diaries and Nanny Returns by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus.  I had read both previously, but so long ago that the details were long gone from my memory.

The Nanny Diaries, which became a movie staring Scarlet Johansen, is the story of Nan, a young woman in New York who works as a nanny for the wealthy families of Manhattan.  The whole book is centered on Nan’s work with the Xs, and their son Greyer.  As it so happens, Mrs. X is the type of mother that needs a nanny because all the time she spends at the spa is exhausting; she provides very little care to her own child when she is around; and she’s more concerned with appearances than her son.  Mr. X is an elusive character that pops in an out of Greyer’s life because he’s so busy at the office and having an affair.  Greyer is a sweet little boy is a whole host of neuroses from being raised in an environment with Mr. and Mrs. X as his only stable influence, and a rotating cast of hired help.  Enter Nan, who brings love and concern for Greyer, and a hope of normalizing the environment he’s being raised in.

In Nanny Returns, Nan is back in New York and Greyer’s life years later, after a grown-up Greyer tracks her down for answers about his childhood.  Nan is a young professional with a consulting business, a husband, a home renovation project, and a boatload of guilt for how she left things with Greyer when he was young.  Nanny Returns gives the reader a look at Greyer and his contemporaries (i.e. the spoiled brats that Nan knew as toddlers who now have credit cards and smart phones), as well as where the Xs are after all these years.  

What both books have in common is something of a The Devil Wears Prada feel.  What I mean by that is that Nan gets sucked into doing things for her employer (and later former employer) that she knows is, if not wrong, then pretty close to the line.  But Nan feels compelled to do the things ask of her for altruistic reasons; she wants to protect the children that are at the centre of the cluster-fuck of a life the Xs have created for them.  As a rational observer, the reader wants to encourage Nan to get out and not look back, but then again, once you’re invested in the characters, you want to help the kids and tell off the Xs yourself.

And that’s where the skill of McLaughlin and Kraus come through.  Both authors spent time working in the milieu they place Nan.  The stories, while probably changed enough to avoid a liable lawsuit, were inspired by the things they saw while working as nannies for Manhattan’s uber-wealthy.  When an author is told to write what they know, the Nanny books make a great example of how well that can work.  The result is a whole host of engaging and believable characters that made me want to snap up the sequel when it came out years later to see where everyone had ended up.

One last word before wrapping this review up, and that’s on the movie adaptation of The Nanny Diaries.  I find that the main flaw to the movie is that the filmmakers tried to imbue it with a sense of humour that’s just not there in the book.  In the movie, Nan getting nailed by icing when a high-energy (stoned?) mother insists on playing with the kids during a play date is made comical by the presence of a dead-pan employee of the mother, some light-hearted music, and the vivid shade of pink the icing is when it hits Nan.  In the book, the reader understands that the woman is married to a man way out of her league and age range, she’s dealing with mental-health issues (not drugs), and her behaviour is completely inappropriate, as she’s got nothing on under her bathrobe while she’s playing with her son and his friend.  While the movie makes it a part of a larger montage of how hard Nan’s life is, the book conveys the fact that money doesn’t bring stability to the lives of the type of women that Nan is working for.  In fact, in the book, I found it one of the saddest moments, while in the movie is a completely removable scene.  The movie sets out to be a comedy; the book(s) set out to be a serious look at the lives these children can live.

So, final verdict?  I’d say these are books that appeal to a wide audience, and I’d recommend them.  I found that I liked The Nanny Diaries better because it seemed more believable (because the authors lived it), while Nanny Returns reads more like a fiction (I’m not sure what personal experiences the authors had in relation to it, if any, but that touch of realism seems gone).  However, both are good reads, and it is interesting to get a book with a sequel that picks up a decade later.  As for the movie, I’ll say what I always do about movie adaptations – skip it and spend that time reading the book instead.

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