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In 'My Hollywood,' Mona Simpson slips into different roles

Her newest novel exists in the separate yet simultaneous worlds of a Filipina nanny and the Pacific Palisades mom for whom she works.

August 01, 2010|By Susan Salter Reynolds, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Novelist Mona Simpson has written "My Hollywood," her first book in 10 years. She is photographed at her home in Santa Monica, Calif.
Novelist Mona Simpson has written "My Hollywood," her first… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

It could be your story.

Like Claire, you put your career, your passion, on hold for a while to follow your husband or significant other across the country so that he can pursue his career or finish his education. You put your career (passion, ideas, education) on hold to start a family (fix up a house, care for an aging relative).

Before you know it, whether it's resentment, exhaustion or alienation, years have gone by and you don't know who he is or who you are or even who this other person, this child, really is.

It takes a very subtle, sophisticated and confident writer to make our most common problems come off as unique on the page as they feel at 3 in the morning. If anyone can do it, Mona Simpson, author of "Anywhere but Here," "The Lost Father," "A Regular Guy" and "Off Keck Road," can. And does.

But there's more. If that's not enough of a challenge for a writer, a brief history of 20th century resentment in Western marriage, here's another: nannies. Don't even say it aloud. Child care is the petard on which fiction and nonfiction writers regularly hoist themselves. One whiff of elitism these days and a piece of literature no longer deserves a spot on the big shelf.

To work or not to work. To spend the same amount of money, if not more, to pay someone else to care for your child, to make your house a home because you are never there, that is the question.

In "My Hollywood" (Alfred A. Knopf: 384 pp., $26.95), it is also the story of Lola, a 52-year-old from the Philippines with five children and an estranged husband of her own back home. She works as a nanny in America to pay for her children's education. She moves in with Claire, a composer, and her husband Paul (somewhere in Pacific Palisades), who works in television (endless catered late-night meetings) and baby William, whom she dotes upon. Other families try to steal her away. Other nannies benefit from her expertise. She is passed around, in spite of her integrity, her love, her skill, like any other commodity: real estate, masseuse, yoga teacher, on the great Westside of Greater Los Angeles.

Here is a short list of all the things a writer who takes on the other N-word might be called: elitist, bad mother, self-centered, selfish, cold, greedy, cartoonish, un-American and on and on. This is where a writer reveals how little he or she knows about child love, resentment, cultural myopia and on and on. So much one doesn't know. Why bother?

Why bother. Simpson, who lives in Santa Monica, likes to come to Venice. She is small and thin and very focused, so, in a simple black dress that is artfully cut, with carefully brushed hair and an aura of fastidious watchfulness, Simpson cuts a figure on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Not a Lindsay Lohan kind of dissolute figure, but a writerly figure — someone who cuts through cultural clutter, listens hard and writes novels that illuminate our perilous paths.

You can't tell how old she is, which is disconcerting (and I am not going to tell you). Every darned question you ask the woman gets turned back on you. The beauty of a novel like "My Hollywood" is that you think it's your Hollywood too.

"The central subject of this novel is motherhood," Simpson says. "Which is why the book took me 10 years to write. I didn't want Claire to seem benighted or draconian. Problems are so much more interesting when they are treated in a subtle way, don't you think?"

Yes.

Simpson grew up with her single mom, a speech therapist, and her grandmother. It was a "mostly female" world. There was a lot of "pining about men." She lived in L.A. through high school, then moved to Wisconsin. She went to UC Berkeley and to Columbia graduate school. She studied with the likes of Leonard Michaels, Ishmael Reed, Richard Price and Charles McGrath. There wasn't much talk about money ("poets didn't think about money!"), and the world of publishing was looser, happier, more vibrant.

In 1993, she moved back here from New York with a 6-week-old baby. "I fell in with a group of babysitters. I listened to the stories of their lives. I was taken with the musicality of their vernacular." Lola, Simpson says, is based in part on a friend's babysitter.

In the novel, it doesn't take Claire long to realize that her career will soon fall by the wayside. Paul is almost never there, and the marriage suffers. She soon finds herself depending heavily on Lola to keep her family together. At least half of the novel concerns Lola, the life she left behind and her position in the community of Philippine babysitters. "I didn't want Claire to seem too whiney," Simpson says, drinking coffee at Intelligentsia. "But I did want to highlight the stark contrast between her problems and Lola's."

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