The Manny, a new novel by Holly Peterson, is the latest in a grand literary tradition that encompasses The Nanny Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada, and the recently controversial Academy X—insider send-ups of elite Manhattan that purport to show us the unseemly “truth” about this hothouse of extreme wealth and privilege. I think it’s fair to say I’m one of a select group of men who will ever so much as pick this novel up. I only read it because I happen to be a manny myself.
The plot is a post-yuppie riff on boy meets girl. Our heroine is Jamie Whitfield, a smart, capable midwestern girl, who married Phillip, a Park Avenue–bred New Yorker. As a mom in this exaggerated, rich-people-with-jets setting, she juggles three kids, a career in broadcast journalism, and a workaholic husband who, wouldn’t you know it, doesn’t really help out much at home. She has hired help of course—there’s a maid and a nanny, plus a driver. But Jamie’s concerned that her 9-year-old son, Dylan, is suffering from a lack of attention from his dad. After he has an embarrassing meltdown on the basketball court, she knows she’s got to do something. She wants a strong male influence for her son, and could use one for herself too. Seeing a handsome young man playing with kids in the park, she offers him a job on the spot. Getting a manny, we are led to believe, is a trendy thing to do.
That right there is something of a stretch. In six years on the job, I’ve only ever met one other guy who does it. I used to see him at school pickup. He had a shaved head, with a pretty incredible scar. Other than holding down a job that most guys wouldn’t take unless they were on the verge of bankruptcy or starvation—as well as a mutual interest in one of the hot young nannies among us on the curb—we didn’t have much in common.
For me, what made The Manny less interesting than it might otherwise have been is that it really isn’t about a manny. A more apt title would be The Mommy—the book focuses pretty tightly on Jamie and her desires for happier kids, an exciting career, and a better marriage. Peter, the manny, is a stock character, a callow guy in his twenties on the rebound from a busted romance. He is more like a cool guy for the kid to hang with than an actual caregiver. We don’t see him making lunches, cooking dinners, or changing diapers. His entire relationship with Dylan isn’t described in real time so much as recounted to Jamie after the fact. Meanwhile, we’ve got a love triangle, a political sex scandal, top-secret files, and an X-rated playdate.
Here’s what the book gets right about being a manny: Your job is to play the role that’s defined for you, which is different in every family and maybe a little more fungible than it would be for a female nanny. My first manny job was in Los Angeles. I was writing movie scripts, working three jobs, and a friend of a friend was quitting her job taking care of a 4-year-old boy for a single mom. I like kids, was tired of running around, and took the job. In that situation, I was basically the kid’s father. I cooked him dinner pretty much every night and taught him how to swim.
The next job was in New York, for a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old, and there I was more like a big brother. I helped them with homework and played video games after it was done. In my current gig, I am a grown-up, not a playmate, and I do anything that I am asked to do. I drop off the dad’s suits at the dry cleaner, and this whole last week, I was ironing name tags into the 9-year-old’s underpants in preparation for sleepaway camp. In comedic moments like this, I wish someone else were there to share the joke. Taking care of four kids, as I do now, isn’t always easy, but you’d be surprised how often they do make you laugh. And if I didn’t think you’d tune me out, I’d start listing all the ways they’re adorable and smart, just like their parents would.
In the book, Peter is really just an accessory to Jamie’s fabulous but out-of-control life. Because his suitability as a romantic partner for Jamie must be maintained, he evidently can’t do any work that might demean his masculinity. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to because there’s all that other hired help around.
We also never get to see Peter with his own peers, so we have no idea how he handles the social stigma of representing himself as a dude doing “ladies’ work.” I don’t have any serious hang-ups about it. I enjoy the job—I like the person I have to be to do it well, which is the exact opposite of what a lot of other people experience at their jobs. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to moments of insecurity. I was at a lame party not long ago, and we were playing the typical game of “What do you do, what do you do?” When it came around to me, I remember feeling actually nervous and a bit shameful. “Oh, you’re a babysitter,” some schmuck said. Later on, I felt even crappier for having cared what any of those people thought. I didn’t want their jobs, why should it bother me that they didn’t want mine?
A few months ago, I got a present from my boss and the kids—a young readers’ novel called The Manny Files, by Christian Burch. I liked that book a lot because it was all about how the manny actually deals with the kids. He is an unbelievable mensch, always trying to find ways to amuse them. He puts notes in their lunch boxes. He helps the boy deal with the class bully and advises the girl on her boy problems. He deals with the kids’ hurt feelings, with feelings of humiliation, self-consciousness, even about death. Kids ask lots of questions, and they often surprise you. Being able to answer an incredibly serious, grown-up question so that even a child can understand is a skill in itself. This manny, unlike Peter, never avoids sensitive topics, and always pays attention and shows the kids respect. Another aspect I really enjoyed about this book is that the young boy is the narrator, which gives the whole thing an engaging sense of curious naïveté.
As it happens, The Manny Files also has a romantic element. Over the course of the book, we deduce that the manny is having a relationship with the kids’ uncle. The narrator doesn’t understand it himself, but the evidence is clear. Compared with the cheesy, inevitable consummation in The Manny, this children’s book explores adult relationships in a mature and nuanced fashion.
Of course, The Manny isn’t really a book. It’s a chick flick begging to be made. Here’s the pitch: “Sex and the City meets Charles in Charge.” Few guys are going to read The Manny, or let’s be honest, probably this article about it, either. But men, consider yourself warned: You’re going to get dragged to the movie.
By Holly Peterson. The Dial Press. 368 pages. $25.