Minding Ben by Victoria Brown. Reviewed by Louise Hilton.
Victoria Brown’s powerful debut novel Minding Ben features Grace Caton, a 16-year-old girl from Trinidad who’s traveled to New York to pursue that most enduring of siren calls, the American dream. After her promise of lodging and employment falls through, she pounds the pavement looking for a job until finally she is hired by a well-to-do couple named the Bruckners as a live-in nanny for their young son Ben. Right off the bat, the reader senses the trouble to come, what with the dismissive tone Mrs. Bruckner takes with Grace to Mr. Bruckner’s gaze that lingers a few seconds too long on Grace’s “model” legs. (“Call me Sol,” he insists.)
Set in the early ’90s – with a harrowing scene set during the real-life Crown Heights (Brooklyn) riots of August 1991 – Minding Ben is a deeper read than it first appears, with the author’s real-life experience as a young immigrant nanny undoubtedly enhancing Grace’s story with vivid details. Her indomitable spirit and wry sense of humor make Grace a lovable protagonist, and I found myself invested in her future and wanting her to thrive despite formidable odds.
Brown’s lyrical phrasing and frequent use of various patois from the West Indian island nations – Grace and her fellow nannies and neighbors can immediately suss one another’s accents out, be they Bajan, Jamaican, or Trinidadian – add depth and interest to the story and the conversations fairly crackle on the page, especially Grace’s interactions with the hilarious Kathy, a fellow Trinidadian, who discovers the joys of BeDazzling (did I mention this is the early ’90s?) and nightclubbing.
Minding Ben is a deeply satisfying read and I look forward to reading more by Victoria Brown in the future. For similar titles, check out Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid, What the Nanny Saw by Fiona Neill, or Soledad by Angie Cruz. For those simply interested in a behind-the-scenes peek into the rarefied world of New York’s elite, try The Darlings by Cristina Alger, Prospect Park West by Amy Sohn, or even The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Krauss.