Thursday, Mar 21, 2002 5:08 PM UTC

“The Nanny Diaries” by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

Two real-life nannies paint a wickedly funny portrait of their pampered charges -- and the kids' even more spoiled and demanding parents.

P.L. Travers, the author of the wonderful Mary Poppins books, remains the finest practitioner of nanny lit. But with their tart, lively and genuinely openhearted debut novel “The Nanny Diaries,” Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, both former nannies themselves, carry on Travers’ esteemed tradition — except you might say that a Kate Spade tote replaces the old carpetbag.

And unlike the Travers books, “The Nanny Diaries” is a sharply barbed comedy of manners; the denizens of New York’s Upper East Side (and, by extension, their brethren in all other tony, overpriced, deadly dull neighborhoods in cities around the world) are its target.

The heroine is a 20-ish New York University student named (what else?) Nanny, who has worked her way through college by taking care of rich people’s kids. She always enjoys the kids; the parents are another story. She meets her biggest challenge when she takes on the job of looking after Grayer X, the 4-year-old son of Mrs. X (a vacant, Prada-wearing socialite whose most meaningful activity in life is that of turning condescension into an art form), and Mr. X (a powerful investment banker who spends so little time with his son that he probably couldn’t pick him out of a crowded sandbox).

Grayer is a spoiled pest when we first meet him, but Nanny — who comes from a well-educated, politically liberal, unsnobbish family, and who is working toward a degree in child development — has ways of winning him over, which mostly involve listening to him, talking to him and simply treating him like a human being, skills his parents can’t be bothered to learn. In fact, it almost seems as if Mrs. X considers it her chief responsibility to single-handedly make Nanny miserable: She rings Nanny at home at ungodly hours; demands that she assemble gift bags for her dinner parties and run personal errands she’s too lazy to do herself; and, worst of all, watches Nanny like a security guard at Harry Winston, rebuking her for any number of imaginary missteps in her approach to child care. (Mrs. X’s favorite mode of communication consists of notes written on expensive stationery that convey stern messages like “As a rule I don’t like Grayer to have too many carbohydrates” and “It has come to our attention that after you left in such a hurry last night there was a puddle of urine found beneath the small garbage can in Grayer’s bathroom.”)

The irony, of course, is that Mrs. X isn’t a bit interested in her child as anything but an accessory. But in between shuttling Grayer from French lessons to piano lessons and ice-skating lessons, not to mention to preschool and scheduled play dates, Nanny grows fond of him and repeatedly makes an effort to “sell” Mrs. X on him in a desperate attempt to improve his overscheduled-yet-empty little life.

McLaughlin and Kraus keep “The Nanny Diaries” funny and light, but they’re also good liberals at heart: Nanny befriends a fellow nanny in her early 40s who used to be an engineer in her native San Salvador but who can find only low-paying child-care jobs in the United States. Nanny is also keenly aware of the fact that many of her fellow nannies have young families of their own, families that are often left to the care of grandparents while the nannies tend to the little pashas of the Upper East Side. (McLaughlin and Kraus perfectly capture the flavor of those pampered lives, as perceived by the nannies, in one very short passage: “We push our charges over to Fifth Avenue. Like little old men in wheelchairs, they relax back in their seats, look about and occasionally converse. ‘My Power Ranger has a subatomic machine gun and can cut your Power Ranger’s head off.’”)

McLaughlin and Kraus are largely sympathetic to the children (who can’t, after all, be blamed for the sins of their clueless parents), but they spare little mercy for monster moms and dads like Mr. and Mrs. X. They describe a special paddling “spatula” move that Mrs. X uses to deflect Grayer whenever he rushes up to attempt a hug (she wouldn’t want the Gucci mussed). And while Mrs. X is capable of occasional vulnerability and even kindness (she does give Nanny a pair of cast-off Prada pumps), her generosity is really about as deep as a Tiffany’s thimble. At Christmas, she bestows expensive handbags and large checks on her other servants, while reserving a special insult of a gift for Nanny: a pair of earmuffs.

“The Nanny Diaries” has caused something of a stir on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, some of whose citizens have taken great pains to point out that the book is most certainly not about them. Some people are incredibly angry: According to an article in the New York Times, the inhabitant of one building wants its board to pass a rule preventing anyone from writing about its tenants. (That’ll learn ‘em!)

But despite the fact that McLaughlin and Kraus have both worked as nannies, it’s clear that “The Nanny Diaries” is a work of fiction. The characters are too broad and exaggerated and wincingly funny to be 100 percent true to life. But then again, some people don’t know the meaning of “satire.” It’s so hard to find a good-looking dictionary that doesn’t clash with the color scheme of the library.

Our next pick: A lawyer contends with sleazeball clientele and a wife who inexplicably hates him