Saturday, May 7, 2011

My Hollywood, by Mona Simpson

My Hollywood is a story of mothers and nannies but it's no The Nanny Diaries. Narrated by Claire, a composer, and Lola, a Filipina nanny who cares for Claire's son Will, Mona Simpson's book is a serious (though sometimes humorous) look at the interrelationships among nannies, their employers, and the children they care for.

Claire is married to Paul, a writer for a sitcom who is never home at their rented Santa Monica house. Claire, who not only needs time to write in her upstairs studio but also questions her own parenting skills, hires Lola as a live-in caregiver for Will. Both Claire and Will grow to depend on Lola's calm competence; Lola, in turn, loves Will dearly. Meanwhile, Lola is sending money home to the Philippines, where her husband and five grown children live; she came to LA to work because the family needed money for her youngest daughter's medical school tuition.

At the urging of her friend Helen Grant (whose husband is more successful than Paul), Claire attends a parenting class to increase Will's chances of getting into the desired preschool. When Will has trouble making and keeping friends at the preschool, the counselor suggests that Lola is the problem, and Claire and Paul "chop" (fire) Lola. Lola then gets a job caring for baby Laura, whose single mother Judith is, like Paul, never home. Laura has some problems due to oxygen deprivation at birth. Lola quickly grows to love Laura and takes her to her many appointments with therapists, does exercises with her, and essentially wills her to full health by the time Laura is 5--just as Judith acquires a live-in boyfriend who wants Lola to do his ironing. This time, when Lola is "chopped," she returns to the Philippines, but she quickly realizes that she is more at home with other people's children in LA than at home.

This synopsis does not do justice to the complexity of the two characters Simpson has created nor the insight she provides into their thoughts and feelings (the two do not seem typical, although their situations seem emblematic of what many women face in our class-conscious country). On the other hand, a confusion of other mothers, children, and nannies clutter the story; although the accumulation of caregiver-comings and goings, divorces, illnesses, and loneliness adds weight, the story would have been sharper with some judicious editing. Still worth reading.

Favorite passages:
Maybe there was an essential agreement at the bottom of every marriage. I supposed it was time I read the fine print of my own.

Helen had gone to a two-day gingerbread workshop. Her house alluded to children, but if a real child had worked on it, it couldn't have looked like this. it would have been smeared with frosting, lopsided, the roof laden with candy. No, this wasn't authentic or even useful. Only beautiful. What her life now allowed her to make.

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