Rocking the Cradle

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To the litany of anxi-eties faced by contemporary parents, a list that already includes pedophiles, school fees and long car trips with a Wiggles tape, we must now add a new specter: the nanny with the book contract.

This fear has been made acute by the unexpected success of The Nanny Diaries (Penguin), a novel of bad manners set on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The book is in its sixth printing and is climbing the New York Times fiction best-seller list. The film rights have been sold to Miramax for a reported $500,000. And the first-time authors, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, two peppy twentysomething graduates of New York University, have been all over the morning television shows.

All this for the tale of an upper-middle-class girl, Nanny, who takes a part-time job looking after Grayer Addison X, the 4-year-old scion of the Xs, a wealthy family with serious boundary issues. As plots go, it's not exactly Tom Clancy, but the novel's niftiness lies in Nanny's keen eye for detail. She's Mary Poppins channeling Dorothy Parker. She notes, for example, that at Halloween children are dressed as grownups while their caregivers are belittled: tiny Snow Whites shadowed by large dwarfs. Not to mention that the nannies' costumes are breathtakingly unsuitable for chasing toddlers.

The rich apparently raise their children differently from you and me. And no one is as deeply wedged into a wealthy family's daily life as a nanny, so when one (or two) decides to dish, the morsels are pretty irresistible. In Diaries Nanny comes across alphabetized lingerie drawers, a Christmas tree with no room for a child-made ornament and the ""Spatula Reflex,"" a gesture developed by mommies to keep their children's hugs away. The master bedroom in apartments as vast as the Xs', Nan notes, ""always runs the gamut from far away to really, really far away"" from the child's bedroom, which contains ""signed first edition Babar prints hung at least three feet above the child's head.""

The nanny has an unobstructed view of the sometimes comic gap between a child's needs and a Chanel-wearing mother's idea of those needs. Mrs. X tells Nan that Grayer likes steamed kale and coquilles St. Jacques. On the rare day when he has no scheduled activity, ""permissible nonstructured outings"" include the French Culinary Institute, the Swedish consulate and the orchid room of the botanical garden (fun!). She brings in a ""long-term development consultant"" when Grayer doesn't get into his first school of choice. In short, they give him everything but their attention.

Nan gets even less. The Xs forget to pay her; they leave her with a party of 12 small children, an unfenced pool and nothing but Brie in the fridge; and-indignity of indignities-they give her earmuffs for Christmas. (The piano teacher gets an Herm?s bag and a check.) The part about earmuffs, at least, isn't fiction. ""We have both been given earmuffs,"" says Kraus, ""after months of really hard work!""

While many nannies are silenced by iffy immigra-tion status or poor English, Kraus and McLaughlin were uniquely placed to expose the nanny-to-the-rich biz. Kraus was raised on the Upper East Side, McLaughlin in upstate New York. They have an easy familiarity with the trappings-and traps-of wealth. But the book would not be making nearly the splash it is if the authors' former employers did not include about 30 actual New York City families. The verisimilitude has made for a cool reaction from some quarters and sniffs of a boycott from Park Avenue. Several publishing houses turned the book down, and the authors were told it was because senior executives felt it was ""too strident.""

But the novelists stress that there is no real Mrs. X, that the events are exaggerated versions of things that happened to them or people they knew and that they didn't start the book until after they had stopped nannying. Nor did they set out to write a sizzling roman ą clef; they were shooting more for Chekhov. ""We noticed that in a lot of books in N.Y.U.'s Great Books Program, nannies were mentioned,"" says McLaughlin. ""They were always a peripheral but pivotal figure.""

Their aims are worthy, but cultural criticism is not what's selling this book. It's the Bonfire of the Nannies–style voyeurism. At the moment, they're writing a book covering the next chapter of their heroine's life. It had better work, for they certainly won't be able to fall back on nannying.

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