- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2010

By Mona Simpson
Knopf, $26.95, 384 pages

A novel about wealthy mothers and their nannies living in Santa Monica might suggest a glitzy glimpse into the lives of the rich and soon-to-be-famous.

But in “My Hollywood,” author Mona Simpson has much more than glamorous lifestyles to reveal. By exploring the lives of nannies working in nuclear families of father, mother and child, she widens the focus on domestic attachments.

To the usual loves of husband and wives, parents and children, friends and lovers, she adds the love of nannies and the children they care for, the nannies’ love for their own families and culture and the relationships of nannies and mothers - women who share and sometimes compete over the same tasks. The effect is like adding another instrument to a string trio: The result is a quartet, whose music is richer, more complex, and often sadder, too.

Ms. Simpson tells “My Hollywood” from the points of view of both Lola, a Filipina nanny newly arrived in California, and Claire, a composer married to Paul, who hopes to break into the world of TV comedy. They don’t have much money, but they hire Lola to look after their baby, William, so Claire can compose her symphony while Paul spends 12- and 14-hour days at the studios.

Back in the Philippines, Lola’s family of five are all doing well because she and her husband have devoted all their resources to their education. Lola is in America only to earn the money that will pay medical school tuition for her youngest daughter. It’s in Lola’s interest to earn as much as possible as fast as possible so she can get back home and pick up the reins of her family. But she often helps out other nannies financially, and when another couple tries to poach her from Claire and Paul by offering her higher wages, she turns them down because she likes Claire and loves William too much to leave them.

Claire, of course, loves William, too. But she also loves composing music and has several commissions. Though Lola is a huge help, finding time to compose gets harder as Paul begins to succeed in TV. Claire feels unsure about her work, unsure about her own deepest desires and even unsure about William. He hits other kids and he’s bossy. A teacher suggests that perhaps a foreign nanny isn’t right for him, so, reluctantly, she agrees that Paul can fire Lola. A disaster.

Claire now has to struggle with less sympathetic nannies and a recalcitrant child as well as her foundering career and marriage. Lola, too, is distraught, until she finds another job, with Judith, a single mother who cannot offer her good pay or conditions, but whose daughter has developmental problems that elicit all Lola’s care and love.

Lola is the heroine of this novel: devoted to her own and other people’s children and a selfless friend to the other nannies she meets and to Claire and Judith. But in Ms. Simpson’s hands, she is no plaster saint. Nor is she the devoted family retainer of literary stereotype. She always knows the score: Nannies can be jettisoned; they have to look out for themselves. She is therefore always dealing with multiple problems and possibilities. Her life is complex, fraught, yet satisfying because she has goals and she succeeds in meeting them. When she eventually returns to the Philippines, we see what she has gained, what she has lost and what she decides to settle with.

Claire is another kind of heroine: the contemporary woman who loves her husband and child but also has more than serious work - not a job to help family finances, nor even a profession that she enjoys, but an abiding commitment to music. Ms. Simpson carefully - even painfully - shows the way that her time evaporates: at first because she is struggling to feed her cranky baby, then because she is coping with her new life, making friends, trying to do the best for William. Paul is no help because he’s not there.

“Why didn’t I show up on the Lot and scream? Or take Willie on a plane?” she thinks. But she knows the answer: “I didn’t want to blow Paul’s chance. His show was a treasure. I couldn’t live with the guilt of harming what he loved. But I could live with my anger. I have been living with that so long already.” There’s no happy outcome for Claire any more than there is for Lola. She ends up settling for the best that she can make of her situation.

This is a satisfying ending of both Lola’s and Claire’s stories because it seems the inevitable outcome of the decade recorded in “My Hollywood.” As she traces the ways lives change, Ms. Simpson investigates the vagaries of life in America, both for Americans and for immigrants. She also often raises a satirical brow, especially about parenting in an age when having children no longer comes naturally but through a series of decisions that entail consequences - a word that now figures frequently in parents’ lexicons.

Astute, clever, wide-ranging, sometimes funny, always sympathetic to the varieties of love and domesticity, “My Hollywood” will stay in the mind because it digs deep into contemporary life and manners, raising questions about how we live and what we need.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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