To the litany of anxieties faced by contemporary parents, a list that already includes pedophiles, school fees and long car trips with a Raffi tape, we must now add a new specter: the nanny with the book contract.
This fear has been made acute by the unexpected success of The Nanny Diaries (St. Martin's; $24.95), a novel of bad manners set on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The book is in its sixth printing and in ninth place on the New York Times fiction best-seller list. The film rights have been sold to Miramax for a reported $500,000. And the first-time authors, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, two peppy twentysomething graduates of New York University, have been all over the morning television shows.
All this for the tale of an upper-middle-class girl, Nanny, who takes a part-time job looking after Grayer Addison X, the 4-year-old scion of the Xs, a wealthy family with serious boundary issues. As plots go, it's not exactly Tom Clancy, but the novel's niftiness lies in Nanny's keen eye for detail. She's Mary Poppins channeling Dorothy Parker. She notes, for example, that at Halloween children are dressed as grownups while their caregivers are belittled: tiny Snow Whites shadowed by large dwarfs. Not to mention that the nannies' costumes are breathtakingly unsuitable for chasing toddlers.
The rich apparently raise their children differently from you and me. And no one is as deeply wedged into a wealthy family's daily life as a nanny, so when one (or two) decides to dish, the morsels are pretty irresistible. In Diaries Nanny comes across alphabetized lingerie drawers, a Christmas tree with no room for a child-made ornament and the "Spatula Reflex," a gesture developed by mommies to keep their children's hugs away. The master bedroom in apartments as vast as the Xs', Nan notes, "always runs the gamut from far away to really, really far away" from the child's bedroom, which contains "signed first edition Babar prints hung at least three feet above the child's head."
The nanny has an unobstructed view of the sometimes comic gap between a child's needs and a Chanel-wearing mother's idea of those needs. Mrs. X tells Nan that Grayer likes steamed kale and coquilles St. Jacques. On the rare day when he has no scheduled activity, "permissible nonstructured outings" include the French Culinary Institute, the Swedish consulate and the orchid room of the botanical garden (fun!). She brings in a "long-term development consultant" when Grayer doesn't get into his first school of choice. In short, they give him everything but their attention.
Nan gets even less. The Xs forget to pay her; they leave her with a party of 12 small children, an unfenced pool and nothing but Brie in the fridge; and--indignity of indignities--they give her earmuffs for Christmas. (The piano teacher gets an Hermes bag and a check.) The part about earmuffs, at least, isn't fiction. "We have both been given earmuffs," says Kraus, "after months of really hard work!"