A rich Manhattanite hires a male nanny for her 9-year-old son and gets more than she bargained for
The Manny. By Holly Peterson. Dial Press, 353 pp., $25
By Janice Harayda
The emaciated carcasses of Park Avenue socialites have been pretty well picked over by novelists. First Tom Wolfe satirized the women whom he called “lemon tarts” and “social X-rays” in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Then came a second generation of writers who cannibalized rich Manhattanites’ lives for parts he spared. Candace Bushell took their sex lives in Four Blondes and other books, Nancy Lieberman their obsession with private schools in Admissions and – most memorably – Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus their ruthlessness to their nannies in The Nanny Diaries.
To all of this Holly Peterson brings one new idea, at least for anybody who hasn’t followed Britney Spears’s fumbled attempts at child care: A status symbol for some mothers is a male nanny who takes boys to batting cages and basketball courts when their fathers can’t get away from their high-flying jobs in law or finance. A while back, Peterson wrote a lively story about this for the New York Times that explained why she had hired men to care for her 3-year-old son. (It seems Jack wanted to sell his baby sister at the supermarket. ”Just leave her on the shelf next to the Teddy Grahams, Mom,” he proposed.) She now returns to male nannies in a glorified romance novel that’s better beach reading than Danielle Steel but not nearly as good as The Nanny Diaries.
Jamie Whitfield, a 36-year-old television producer, hires a younger man to care for her 9-year-old son because her callow husband earns $1.5 million a year but doesn’t seem to care that Dylan is suffering from “loss of self-esteem more than likely due to an absent dad. ” Jamie has middle-class, Midwestern roots – she married “up” – and professes disdain for the “showy and vulgar” New Yorkers she meets at a museum benefit.
But she acts at times like as much of a snob as her friends. She scorns the clothes of a researcher for her TV show: “She was wearing one of her awful Ann Taylor suits from the last century – a cherry-red one.” (She tells the woman, cruelly, “You look like an Avis car rental agent again.”) One problem with the jab is that in some Heartland cities – whose values Jamie is supposed to stand for – Ann Taylor stores are the most stylish in town. (I was thrilled when Ann Taylor moved into the Galleria in Cleveland, where I worked after writing for Glamour – not because I didn’t know you could find more fashionable clothes at Bendel’s and Bergdorf’s but because it offered an alternative to the Limited.) If Peterson wanted to pile more scorn on the suit, she could have done it more credibly with a reference to the lapels or fabric – it’s the gratuitous brand name that’s the tip-off to Jamie’s snobbery.
The Nanny Diaries succeeded, in part, because McLaughlin and Kraus had worked for more than 30 families as nannies and their details consistently came across as fresh and authentic. Peterson achieves this only erratically. Just as important, McLaughlin and Kraus had control of their tone from the start and never let you forget whom you were supposed to identify with – the exploited young nanny. Peterson’s tone is so uneven that she never establishes full sympathy for her heroine. The Manny says several times that Jamie’s son has low “self-esteem.” And because that phrase has been so overused that many journalists and others now avoid it, you might think the references are satirical. But they seem painfully earnest. The novel has the further burden of a pace that’s slow for at least the first 150 pages, after which the plot elements begin to mesh and push the story along more briskly. Even then, there isn’t much suspense about the question at the heart of the book: Will Jamie leave her indifferent husband for the manny who has charmed her young son?
Peterson seems to be trying to have it both ways – to suggest that Jamie has joined the uptown elite while remaining superior to it. The Manny reminds us that, in novels as in life, this is an act that only the most skilled can pull off.
Best line: Jamie talks about a show with network lawyer Geraldine Katz. “Geraldine once asked me how I could prove Michael Jackson really was the King of Pop.”
Worst line: Any of Peterson’s attempts to write a plausible sex scene. These are irreproducible on a site with many links from public libraries. But next time you’re in a bookstore, check out the scene on page 167 that begins with “Now she was on her knees …” and ends with “like a fire hose in her expensive mouth.” This is possibly the worst sex scene ever to appear in a novel excerpted by Newsweek, which has posted a portion of the book in its Web edition for June 17. The magazine does not include this scene in its excerpt in but uses a tamer passage for obvious reasons, including that excerpting this one could alienate a large portion of its subscription base.
The worst line not involving sex occurs when Jamie screams at her husband, “We’re in the modern era, baby, you spoiled, Jurassic, archaic, Waspy piece of petrified wood!” Yes, this is a character we’re supposed to like.
Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Manny was posted on this site on June 26, 2007, in the post just before this review.
Editor: Susan Kamil
Published: June 2007
Furthermore: Peterson is a contributing editor of Newsweek.
Links: Peterson has a page on My Space (www.myspace.com/hollypetersonthemanny), but I’m having trouble getting the direct link to work from this site. You can find the page by going to www.myspace.com and searching “hollypetersonthemanny” (one word).
I can’t seem to link to the excerpt in the online edition of Newsweek, either, but you can find it by Googling “The Manny + excerpt + Newsweek.” You can find the same excerpt that appears in Newsweek on the publisher’s site www.randomhouse.com/.
(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.