- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006


By Fay Weldon

Atlantic Monthly Press, $24, 284 pages

Early in “She May Not Leave,” Frances Watt, the novel’s 72-year-old narrator, recalls a string of au pairs whom she employed when her children were young. Because the passage reveals all the disequilibrium that can be set in motion when we turn over the care of our children to others — a central theme of this wickedly hilarious book — it is worth quoting at length:

“Nearly all of them were good girls, just a few were very flawed. But they all made their mark. I am sure some traces of various learned characteristics remain in my children and in Serena’s too, to this day.

“Roseanna, Viera, Krysta, Maria, Svea, Raya, Saturday Sarah — all will have had some input into what they became. Ours may have been the predominant influence, but I’m sure my Jamie learned from Viera how to get his way by sulking and from Sarah how to love in vain.

“It was from Maria that Lallie the flautist learned to despise us all, but from Roseanne how to value and respect fabrics. Lallie may be falling into bed with a lover but she won’t fling her clothes on the floor. She will place them neatly on the back of a chair, or indeed on a clothes rail. She is prepared to spend hours washing by hand, while I just bung things in the washing machine and hope for the best.”

Frances has already put readers on notice: “I am Lallie’s bad mother, Hattie’s good grandmother,” and as the voice of authority presiding over the domestic train wreck to come, she is a formidable and insightful force.

Is Frances Watt (initials F.W.) a stand-in for Fay Weldon, the British master satirist? That is likely not the case since, in this fast-paced, playful novel (the author’s 25th), a more likely candidate is the equally wise Serena, Frances’ sister who happens to be a successful writer who also has a daughter with nanny problems.

Nevertheless, in “She May Not Leave,” it is Hattie’s troubles with Agnieska, the newly employed Polish au pair, that sets the narrative in motion. The book is somewhat like the 2002 runaway bestseller “The Nanny Diaries,” the novel written by two real-life nannies who shaped a tell-all tale that had to have won them the last laugh over their former — and likely despicable — employers.

In this book, on the other hand, there is something a little more menacing, a little more ruthless and no one gets the last laugh. This is a comic novel, but make no mistake; it is a dark one.

“She May Not Leave” begs the guilt-ridden question, can we blame the kinks of our darling children on the flawed au pairs we hire? And more spookily, what happens to our homes when there are strangers living among us? In the author’s experienced hands, you can be sure it’s more than Dad having to wear a bathrobe.

The book begins straightforwardly enough. Martyn and Hattie are a young, committed-but-not-married couple living in London with their newborn daughter Kitty. Kitty was a “mistake” whom they love, and Martyn would like to marry Hattie but, Frances observes, “She says she has no respect for the institution, as indeed neither does he, at least in principle. Both look at marriages within their immediate families and decide it is not for them. The complexity of divorce, and also its likelihood, alarms them both.”

Even though Hattie does not have a job when the novel opens, the couple plans to share parenting duties. Things get complicated when Hattie is offered a job back at the literary agency where she once worked, an opportunity that is irresistible. Since Martyn cannot get away from his work at the liberal political magazine Devolution, they inevitably are forced to hire someone to keep the house in order and have Kitty taken care of.

When Agnieska arrives, she shows herself to be a competent and welcome addition to the household. She is not any kind of nanny-vixen. Frances observes, “Hers are strong, practical hands, the skin rather blotchy and loose and much lined upon the palm … . Apart from the slightly sensuous air imparted by the short, full upper lip she seems to present no danger to marital harmony. She is far too serious for sexual hanky-panky.” She cooks. “She folds crumpled baby blankets.”

Nevertheless, before very long it becomes clear that Agnieska has secrets, and things are not quite what they appear to be.

The central story of Hattie, Martyn, Kitty and Agnieska anchors the book. But with Frances’ interjection of reminiscences from her own life and that of her immediate family, what might have been a simple, though stunning, domestic tale becomes something richer and deeper.

There are aphorisms offered early on by Frances that are telling and that resonate: “Keeping the au pair happy I say has become one of their major concerns.” And there are surprises. Revealing any here would spoil the fun of this startling one-two punch of a novel.

Throughout the book Fay Weldon’s eye for the comic intersections of language and life is an unrepentant kick. My favorite is folded into this observation by Frances when Hattie and Martyn get a cat named Sylvie:

“I point out that confusion between maid and mistress is bad enough but now there will be confusion between child and pet as well. Those coming to the house for the first time will assume Sylvie is the child and Kitty is the animal. I warm to my theme.”

In the end, in this rollicking shocker of a book, readers will find many themes to warm to. At its core, this is a decidedly moral book that brings into focus the dilemma of working parents, the children they love, the parents they need and the hired help they ought to screen very, very carefully.

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