When Ali Sparrow answers Bryony Skinner's advertisement for a nanny, her life changes in a heartbeat. At first everything is overwhelming, from twins who speak their own language, to a teenager with weight issues and a son almost her own age. And of course Bryony - oozing privilege thanks to a millionaire father, high-flying husband and her own dazzling career - has a beady eye that focuses on Ali's failings.
But as Ali becomes increasingly indispensible, she realises she's the wallpaper no one notices anymore, which means she's witness to things she probably shouldn't see. So when a scandal erupts that suggests something corrupt has been hatched behind the Skinners' flawless front door, who is better placed than Ali to tell all?
But where do her loyalties lie? To the family she ran away from - or the family of strangers who took her in?
There has been a lot of commentary recently about chick lit and its place in the literary spectrum - with What the Nanny Saw, Fiona Neill makes a beautiful riposte. It has all the components of a chick lit novel - over-the-top characters, a slightly contrived situation, a romance that you can see coming - but places them within a fiercely intelligent story examining the minutiae of scandal, finance and the media.
On the face of it, we are reading about Ali Sparrow and her attempts to play the part of a Mary Poppins character in an obscenely rich family. Her job is cut out for her, considering she barely sees the two parents and they communicate with her via their Blackberries. However, Fiona Neill sets this against the backdrop of the fall of Lehman Brothers - the father of the Skinner family, Nick, holds a prominent position in the bank, and revels shamelessly in the multi-million bonuses he receives each year.
This acknowledgement of how current affairs affected those in the maelstrom of the collapsing financial situation is something I have never seen articulated quite so well before. There is a sense of utter doom as Nick tries harder and harder to shore up the failing position of Lehmans, and his manner of dealing with the crisis is incredibly believable.
As well as this, Neill examines the way that very rich families invite nannies and the like into their houses at the risk of a loss of privacy - we've seen people like Posh and Becks, and Jude Law suffer from nannies telling all. Ali's struggle with her conscience as to whether she should mention anything about what she has seen behind closed doors feels, again, very realistic.
The risk that Fiona Neill took with following a rich family is that it becomes very hard to sympathise with either Bryony or Nick. I do feel for the children, both before and after the financial crash occurs, since they could not choose the life they end up leading. But hearing about fridges and larders filled with food that spoils because they don't eat it before they buy fresh, and the Skinners having a man who comes round just to check the *lightbulbs* makes them seem incredibly out of touch. I guess that is partly the point.
And I'm afraid I found it difficult to appreciate Ali as well. I think that this might have been easier had Neill spent more time at the start of the novel showcasing Ali's life and exactly why she *needed* to take the job with the Skinners. It would also have helped when Ali kept deferring her return to university - as it was, I couldn't see precisely why she would choose a very peculiar job pandering to the needs of a very spoilt family over going back to university and forging her own life and career.
With that said, I do want a lot of people to read What the Nanny Saw. It really is a glittering example of what the very best chick lit can accomplish. In fact, I have placed a tag of contemporary on this novel as well in my review, because at times it doesn't *feel* like how most people regard chick lit at all. It is weighty, dark, satirical and very clever. Well done, Fiona Neill!
What the Nanny Saw will be published by Penguin on 18th August