The Good Nanny
By Benjamin Cheever
Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $23.95
Benjamin Cheever scores more of a miss than a hit with this mordant sendup of ambition, parenthood, and the servant problem, 21st-century style. The novel begins promisingly. Having abandoned big-city living, but not big-city professional status, for a McMansion in suburbia, book editor Stuart Cross and his film-critic wife, Andie, need one more acquisition to make their stressed-out, overextended schedules manageable: a nanny to mind their whiny daughters while they concentrate on their careers. Enter Louise Washington, an eerily competent African-American Mary Poppins.
At around this point Cheever takes a misguided turn and never quite gets back on track. Stuart suffers a professional calamity -- satirized with dead-on wit -- and is stuck at home in a funk of self-pity. But in the meantime, neurotic Andie, crazed with anxiety, has begun to resent and distrust the mysterious Miss Washington and imagines her children in all sorts of peril. It's as if Stephen King had suddenly taken over screenwriting duties on ''Curb Your Enthusiasm." Cheever wants us to enjoy the gratifying satirical spectacle of a yuppie meltdown, but it's hard to laugh when racism, kidnapping, and other nonjoking matters are used as comic props.
Barcelona the Great Enchantress
By Robert Hughes
National Geographic, 176 pp., $20
Who could resist falling for a city that traces its pedigree to a progenitor called Wilfred the Hairy? Robert Hughes, the Paul Bunyan of art criticism, was born in Sydney and resides in New York, but his manly heart belongs to Barcelona, to which he returns as both subject matter and destination in this loving contribution to the National Geographic Directions series.
As ever the most acute as well as the most passionate and articulate of observers, Hughes leads us through the Catalan capital's streets, pointing out its ''architecture of stunning and almost implausible originality," from the medieval remnants of the Barri Gotic to the 19th-century urban fantasias of the Eixample district. The book jacket features a cloud-level view of Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, which looks like nothing else in Barcelona, which is to say, like nothing else on earth.
Being a love letter to a city, Hughes's essay takes frequent personal turns, from the romantic (Barcelona was the site of Hughes's recent third wedding) to opera bouffe, as when he organized a safari inside the dome of the Palau Nacional to exterminate a squatter colony of pigeons. Whether he is gazing around at the city or within, at his relationship with it, the irrepressible vitality of author and subject makes for an ideal match.
Vanity and Vexation:
A Novel of Pride and Prejudice
By Kate Fenton
St. Martin's, 277 pp., $23.95
A film company shooting ''Pride and Prejudice" arrives in a dozy English village and creates a buzz of celebrity excitement among the local population, which seems to consist largely of rusticating urbanites. Strong, silent John Hapgood makes an immediate impression on the film's toothsome star, Candia Bingham, though John is too shy, or perhaps just too British, to let Candia know how he feels about her. Haughty Mary Dance, the film's director, is thrown together with John's writer friend, Nick Llewellyn Bevan, who finds her attractive but arrogant. Ms. Dance at first snubs Nick, though she must admit there's something about his sparkling eyes and his saucy repartee, and . . . haven't we read this story before?
Jane Austen has survived adaptations and outright poaching and will certainly survive Kate Fenton's sexed-up, cross-dressed gloss on ''Pride and Prejudice." It's apparently aimed at people who think that Jane Austen was Barbara Cartland's older sister. Readers who are actually familiar with ''Pride and Prejudice" may be mildly amused at first ticking off the checklist of trangendered plot parallels, though the trick grows stale long before the paper-thin characters cease babbling.
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.