Just a few pages into Fiona Neill’s What the Nanny Saw, I was already pretty angry – not a good sign. The first red flag was that a key character was named “Bryony.” Upon encountering this unfortunately named woman, I was forced to consult the book jacket to confirm that I was not accidentally reading some surprise sequel to The Hunger Games. Nope – this book was, indeed, called What the Nanny Saw. Moreover, I made the mistake of peeking into the Amazon Editorial Review section, which tossed around favorable adjectives in such a way that I was sure Miss Neill would earn a Pulitzer, and maybe I would receive a Nobel Prize just for reading her esteemed work. Entertainment Weekly raves that “Neill’s engrossing and funny noel lies up to the titillating title,” while The Library Journal exclaims, “Neill’s engrossing tale makes for an addictive read, and one can only keep turning the pages to get to the inescapable conclusion” (http://www.amazon.com/What-Nanny-Saw-Fiona-Neill/dp/1594487162/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344605438&sr=1-1&keywords=What+the+Nanny+Saw). Not that the noel is entirely without merit – there are a few redeemable qualities here and there. The problem is that Neill displays an overwhelming ambiguity towards all of the novel’s important events and characters; she spends the novel trying to decide if we should loathe or pity these people, and because Neill hasn’t quite worked this out for herself, we never fully can either.
What the Nanny Saw chronicles the super-rich Skinner family and what their lives look like from the perspective of their meek-ish nanny, Ali Sparrow (daughter of the notorious pirate, Jack). Ali is charged with overseeing all parental duties for the four Skinner children (ranging in age from 5-17) so that Nick and Bryony can fight to the death in an arena full of hungry children – whoops; sorry – so that Nick and Bryony can work seven days a week while constantly hosting and attending dinner parties. Ali thereby witnesses the excesses of wealth in addition to the demeaning, dismissive attitude that the Skinners display towards their staff. All of this crumbles, however, as Nick faces allegations of insider trading just as the bank he works for is collapsing. Facing financial ruin, can the Skinners pull it together? Do we even care? Not really.
Neill’s conclusion is as vague as the rest of her character and plot development. It’s as if she cannot decide if the novel is primarily a comedy or some kind of warped tragedy, and this only causes general confusion and annoyance. For instance, is Nick’s eccentric father-in-law intended to be endearingly narcissistic, or should we be disturbed by his lecherous creepiness? Personally, I think it’s the latter, but since Neill herself has no idea, the intended effect remains a mystery.
Similarly, the entire plight of the Skinner family is enigmatic; Neill creates this largely unlikable family, but then pressures us to sympathize with them. The whole thing is too indefinite, and Neill is not yet a strong enough writer to enable her audience to simultaneously pity and detest the Skinners. Sorry, Fiona – no Pulitzer this time.