Lizzie Vogel has grown up in what she, even at age 9, understands is “a very good situation.” She has a nice home with a nanny and a chauffeur, two siblings and a dog. Then one day, her mother learns that Lizzie’s father has had an affair. The next thing Lizzie knows, her parents have split and she has been shuffled off to live in the country with her mother, brother and sister.
Things unravel pretty quickly in this village outside of London, where Lizzie’s broken mom pops pills, drinks whiskey and writes bad plays while Lizzie and her sister attempt to keep the household running.
“We went to our mother and asked how she thought we might cope now she was semi-conscious much of the time,” says Lizzie. “She explained that she herself was temperamentally unsuited to housework and laundry and always had been—even before the pills had kicked in.”
Clearly, there is a need for a man of the house. Lizzie and her sister start a list of eligible (or even sort of eligible) men in the village who might make their mother happy again. They try—and fail—to connect their mother with Mr. Lomax the handyman; Phil Oliphant, who likes horses; and Reverend Derek, the vicar. All the while, their mother sinks deeper into depression.
Those who have read Love, Nina, Stibbe’s wonderful 2013 memoir of nannying in London, will recognize her singularly witty voice here. While Man at the Helm is hilarious and heartfelt, it also offers a poignant peek into a not-so-distant time when women’s choices were limited and their dependence on men profound. Based on Stibbe’s childhood, Man at the Helm is a beguiling, often wickedly funny look at an unusual family trying to find its place in a conventional world.