Ali Sparrow is a financially-strapped British college student who takes a year off from school to work as a nanny for the Skinners, a wealthy family living in London’s Holland Park. Nick Skinner, the patriarch of the family, is an investment banker. Nick’s wife, Bryony, is the head of her own PR company.
At the beginning of What the Nanny Saw, the Skinners are in the midst of a financial scandal and the paparazzi are camped out in front of the Skinners’ luxurious home. Nick Skinner, alleged to have committed a financial crime, has fled the home in an attempt to shield his wife and children (19-year-old Jake, 17-year-old Izzy, and 7-year-old identical twins Hector and Alfie) from the crush of the media.
Nick’s family members are unsure as to whether he is guilty of the financial crime while Nanny Ali Sparrow may have the answer. We come to discover what Ali knows as we are guided through an extended flashback of Ali’s time working for the Skinners. Our journey begins with the day Ali is hired and Ali’s recollections make up the bulk of the novel.
The promise of finding out what Ali knew with regard to Nick’s possible criminal activities is what initially attracted me to What the Nanny Saw. However, what kept me reading — or in this case, listening to the audiobook — was a story bigger than Nick’s legal troubles.
What the Nanny Saw is a story about a young woman from ordinary and humble circumstances, a young woman who is suddenly thrown into the excessive, over-the-top lives of the extraordinarily wealthy Skinners. Ali Sparrow’s attempts to navigate her way through a world in which she is seen but not seen, a world where she is a part of the family yet outside of the family, comprise the driving narrative of the story.
We sympathize with Ali Sparrow’s discomfort as she imposes Bryony Skinner’s seemingly arbitrary rules on the Skinner children – rules that may prove more harmful than good in the long run. Bryony obsesses over her children’s school grades but fails to see the obvious signs that daughter Izzy is suffering from an eating disorder. Mrs. Skinner’s concerns about outward appearances drives her to insist that twins Hector and Alfie not eat from the same plate or speak their “secret” language lest those outside the family view them as weird and start gossiping about them. Worry about appearances seems to trump any concern for the inner lives of the Skinner children. For a family so drenched in superficialities, much is brimming underneath the surface.
What the Nanny Saw allows us to take sides; however, when we have aligned ourselves with Ali in her plight with the Skinners, a revelation about Ali’s past and the reason she really left school rocks any “goody-goody” image we may have developed of her. That Ali is flawed is one of the great achievements of the novel; it prevents us from seeing Ali as positively boring or bland, especially given some of the more colorful personalities in the book.
Morality and the ways in which we justify certain actions to ourselves is one of the important themes found in What the Nanny Saw. The novel also touches upon a plethora of issues, some of which are given more consideration than others: sex trafficking and sex work, the plight of immigrant nannies, drug use and abuse, class inequities, adultery, and more.
I highly recommend What the Nanny Saw in audiobook form as narrator Allison Larkin fully embodies each character of the novel. Allison Larkin is perhaps the best audiobook narrator I have encountered thus far.
Check the WRL catalog for What the Nanny Saw