Nina Stibbe moved to London in 1982 to work as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books. In the years following, she wrote letters home to her sister in Leicester, and Love, Nina is the result.
Alan Bennett comes to dinner most evenings, Claire Tomalin lives around the corner, and there’s a family joke about borrowing a saw from Jonathan Miller. Not that this is the Bloomsbury Set, far from it. The bulk of the conversation is of bathroom routines, renaming the cat, and whether they should cancel the milkman.
The casual reader may well be justified in asking “What is it about?” In truth, nothing very much happens. For the first 10 pages or so, the narrative idles and drifts its way along, and impatient types could be forgiven for flinging it to one side.
But then, delightfully, the letters begin to work their magic. For the joy of Love, Nina is not in the celebrity anecdotes, although there are a fair few, but rather, in Stibbe’s blend of naivety and wit. Chaucer is summed up thus: “It’s a whole other language and meant to be hilarious, but it’s grim and annoying”; Romeo and Juliet as “a ludicrous story”; and it’s hard not to love someone who says of Thomas Hardy’s poems: “They make me think of him wallowing and moaning and wishing for the olden days and that he hadn’t been such a cunt to his wife.”
Stibbe’s great talent is in sketching a personality in one or two – usually devastating – lines. Hence, we are told of a friend: “Whenever Misty has sex (with boyfriend) she thinks of St Thomas’s church opposite the Esso garage. She’s wondering if it’s a message from above.”
Despite her close proximity to greatness, the writer is wonderfully unfazed. She spends a few weeks thinking that Miller is an opera singer, and for all her fondness for Bennett, she’s awfully scathing about his salad, “just a bag of plain watercress, one chopped up orange, with a bit of olive oil and some ground pepper”.
Littered with Eighties gems, Stibbe’s letters build into a glorious portrait of family life, honest, evocative and funny. There are shades of The Diary of A Provincial Lady, Mapp and Lucia, and perhaps Barbara Pym, and there’s a refreshing youthfulness too.
Upon accidentally reading one of Stibbe’s letters, a baffled Bennett remarks: “I’m not sure what it’s about. A bunch of literary types doing laundry and making salad – or something.” He’s right, and yet completely wrong. Love, Nina is all this, and more.