THE GOOD NANNY
By Benjamin Cheever
Bloomsbury. 278 pp. $23.95
Benjamin Cheever's fourth novel, "The Good Nanny," has an enticing premise: What if the stranger you took into your home to look after your children instantly commanded the kids' affection and loyalty in a way that undermined your sense of yourself as a parent? And what if that stranger were more talented than you, not just in the realm of child-rearing but in your own chosen realm of creative achievement?
Stuart Cross, a 59-year-old veteran editor with one of New York's last independent book publishers, and Andie Wilde, Stuart's 32-year-old wife, have just paid top dollar to hire a "paragon" of a nanny for their unfortunately named daughters, Virginia Woolf Cross (Ginny) and Jane Wilde Cross (ages 9 and 6, respectively). Stuart and Andie have also just paid big bucks for Tara, a suburban manse built in the image of Scarlett O'Hara's digs in "Gone With the Wind" (there's a scaled-down Monticello next door). Eight hundred and fifty thousand is more than they could afford, perhaps. Still, Stuart is expecting to be made editorial director of Acropolis Books any day now. And Andie has just snared the "top film critic" spot at the New York Post. (Cheever's wife is former film critic Janet Maslin, and his details about Andie's job -- the screening routines, the fast-turnaround obituaries -- feel just right.)
The couple's professional triumphs have their downside, however. Stuart has talked for years about writing a novel of his own -- impossible, given the burdens of his job. And Andie's worrywart nature is exacerbated by the steady diet of danger-filled films she sees. Thank goodness, then, for the newly hired nanny, Louise Washington, who will help keep Ginny and Jane occupied and the household running smoothly while Stuart and Andie deal with their frantic schedules and personal insecurities. For an African American from Yonkers, Louise is, as Stuart appallingly puts it, "free of troubling ethnicity." Well-read and culturally curious, she's a painter whose work has just begun to sell (a fact that her employers don't quite take in when they hire her). And it's clear from the moment she steps into the house that she has what it takes to help tubby Ginny with her weight problem and to sidestep Jane's manipulative nature.
Still, in less than a week, first Andie and then Stuart suspect Louise of every possible transgression. And then a local murder -- just the kind of thing Andie and Stuart ditched New York to get away from -- has the local police turning up regularly on Tara's doorstep.
It helps, when you're writing satire, if your targets have a little juice in them. Shooting down cardboard figures just isn't all that much fun. What's needed is a degree of complexity to the characters, or a smidgen of authorial sympathy toward the figures he's lampooning. Cheever's setup is strong, and his portrait of quiet, competent, gifted Louise is solid, as he balances mysteries about her background with palpable evidence of her good sense and kindly authority. It's in his portrait of the Crosses that he goes wrong. If Louise is a "paragon," then the Crosses are too bad to be credible. Stuart's hubris and condescension need more nuance to be believed, and for someone who's been in publishing for close to 30 years, Cheever seems strangely unsavvy about the business. Andie's hysteria about leaving her children in another woman's hands is so pronounced that you have to wonder why she agreed to the arrangement in the first place. And their upscale Westchester County family is so transparently repellent that the notion of satirizing them seems a little redundant. They're the parody of themselves from the get-go -- and, as such, pretty thin stuff.
Another problem is the way Cheever rigs every mishap between employer and employee so mechanically. Anything that can go wrong does go wrong, to the point where the narrative loses almost all its surprise and tension.
Finally, Cheever's fancier flourishes, especially his literary allusions, feel random and silly. The local murder victim is Samuel French (after the film- and theater-book publisher). One of Stuart's literary-agent colleagues is Wallace Stevens ("not that Wallace Stevens"). Stuart's boss's last name is Glass. Why? (New rule: All coy references to J.D. Salinger's famous fictional clan should be off-limits until the man dies and we can see what he's been writing about them since 1963.) The result is a satire strong in concept and not without its good slapstick moments, but too brittle in the execution to fly off the page as gleefully or bitingly as it should.