A British nanny glides into a regimented family, upending its members’ structured lives and rigid routines. This may sound like a Mary Poppins scenario, but it isn’t. This is Dawn French’s new novel According to Yes: an often-gritty and poignant account of modern childcare work in a dysfunctional family.
The nanny in this case is Rosie Kitto: an ebullient 38-year-old British former primary school teacher, who leaves the comforts of home to look after twin boys in New York City. As she gets to know the young charges in her care, Rosie also discovers their parents’ and grandparents’ troubles. Mother and father are struggling through a bitter divorce; grandfather wants to avoid death for as long as possible; and grandmother has become cold and overbearing, saddened that her life no longer has much purpose.
Rosie’s exuberance gradually transforms each of these family members, helping them overcome their respective problems. But the changes are gradual and entail many mishaps. Indeed, the nanny’s difficult relationship with the matriarch of the family – grandmother Glenn – results in regular (and, at one point, vicious) confrontations that form a key part of the narrative.
It is these complex individuals and their messy relationships that give the book its depth and richness. French is an expert at profiling her characters, and skilfully describes the nuances of their personalities and the meanings behind their actions. Terms from the field of psychology are scattered throughout the novel, highlighting the author’s determination to get inside her characters’ heads accurately. Many ideas about vulnerability, happiness and courage also echo the research and writing of scholars such as Brené Brown (and her international bestseller Daring Greatly); more details about these ideas, subtly woven into the book, would have enhanced its psychological aspects.
Rosie is an embodiment of Dawn French in many respects. The character’s joyfulness, sense of humour and imaginativeness are like French’s. Anyone who has seen any of the actress-turned-writer’s performances would also recognise her quirky turns of phrase in the nanny’s speech. Indeed, Rosie has the best dialogue in the book, which becomes decidedly funnier and more engrossing – as well as racy – around the one-third mark.
Less original is Glenn’s character. The persona of the wealthy, but deeply unhappy, older New York woman seems to have featured in many novels and movies before (including prominent films such as The Devil Wears Prada). At times, According to Yes strongly resembles similar novels about childcare work in New York (such as Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s book The Nanny Diaries). Also, the premise of French’s novel – Rosie’s decision to say “yes” to new challenges, no matter how confronting they may be – is not entirely clear at the start and then is virtually absent until the second part of the narrative.
Additionally, the book features many orthographical problems (with semicolons, commas, quotation marks and even spelling, among others). Syntax is awkward at times, as well; this is understandable, given the book is French’s first effort at writing in the traditional (largely linear) novel format.
However, According to Yes is an enjoyable, often-surprising and ultimately touching account of a family having to confront its fears and heal long-festering wounds.