Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Book Review: The Diary of an American Au Pair

Marjorie Leet Ford wrote a novel based on her experiences as an American au pair in Britain. In fact, the novel was originally published (in 2001) under the title of Do Try to Speak as We Do, recalling that well known aphorism: Americans and Brits--two people divided by a common language.

I expected this to be similar to The Nannie Diaries but with a European flair. However, it's very different and not all the differences are cultural.

Melissa was laid off from her advertising job in San Francisco, canceled her wedding, and lost her apartment. Looking for something different, she decides to become the American au pair for a Member of the British Parliament. Over the phone, the job sounds rather exciting: the family has a house in London and an estate in Scotland. They have three children: 11-y.o. Pru, 9-y.o. Trevor (who has a deep interest in the American Indians, specifically the Iroquois tribe), and 3-y.o. Claire, who is deaf. Melissa's job, besides bathing the children, washing and ironing their clothes, selecting and setting out outfits for them, feeding them breakfast, lunch, supper, and tea, is to teach Claire how to speak. And to make sure she gets sufficient time in the park, burning off her incredible amount of energy.

Her first night in the home of the H-E's, Melissa receives an important lesson in the differences between American English and British English. She asks Mrs. H-E where the bathroom is and is directed to a room with a tub and a wash stand. Several minutes of wandering about, Melissa finds the room with the toilet.

The next day, the family drives from London to Scotland, stopping off at the home of Mrs. H-E's parents. Little does Melissa know this is the last time she'll be warm for a very long time. The H-E estate lacks central heating. The water heater is so small that the family shares the bathwater--even Melissa. The "washer" has a hand-operated crank. There is no sun. Mrs. H-E tells Melissa she has "thin blood," a result of her soft life in America.

Melissa's only consolations are writing long letters and diary entries, eating, and her weekly (collect) phone calls to Ted, her ex-fiance, back in San Francisco. In her diary entries, Melissa details the differences she sees between Americans and the British as well as the subtle differences between members of the same social set.

Unsure of her position somewhere between servant and member of the family, Melissa tries to please Mrs. H-E and feels that she falls very short. It's not until she meets Nanny--who was Mrs. H-E's Nanny--that Melissa begins to get a sense of her employer.

Once the family returns to London, Mrs. H-E takes advantage of Melissa's easy-going nature and she finds herself not only the au pair but the housekeeper as well. But she does get her one day off each week and attends a famous cooking school. Melissa writes a letter to the food editor of the Chronicle. He loves her style and offers to publish her observations as a weekly column. Melissa's best friend, who happens to be married and live in London, introduces her to Simon, a friend of her husband. Melissa is attracted to Simon, but is torn between that attraction and her loyalty to Ted.

She is also making progress with Claire, gaining her trust and increasing her vocabulary. Pru and Trevor like her. Mr. H-E likes her. Mrs. H-E trusts her enough to go on a three-week holiday with Mr. H-E to a small village in Greece with no phone service.

Of course, tragedy strikes, beginning with Pru breaking her leg and Ted deciding to fly out to London to visit.

Although the book was written in 2001, I got the sense that it was set at a much earlier time, like maybe the 1970's or 1980's. At least, I think Central Heating is more common today as are electric washing machines. But I admit my first-hand experience is rather limited.

I enjoyed Ms. Ford's descriptions of the local fishermen in the Scottish village and of the staff of other families. Although chronologically an adult, Melissa has a lot of maturing to do and moving out of her familiar environment was what she needed.

This was an interesting book and a quick read; a nice break from the Endymion saga. I was left, however, wondering how many of Melissa's observations were still valid.

On the March Hare scale: 3 out 5 Golden Bookmarks