The Hollywood so devastatingly rendered in Mona Simpson's new novel is a different universe from the world-famous wellspring of movie magic. Its dramas and comedies play out behind the scenes, and the roles are filled almost exclusively by women and children. Men accept walk-on parts, though their subtle influence is always present. There are important deals to be made, contracts to be honored.
But if you are Simpson's protagonists, you dream of testing these limits imposed by gender, age, family, race, money, culture and social status, elements that shape us, whether we want them to or not.
The author of four novels - the last, "Off Keck Road," was published 10 years ago - Simpson has long probed the ties of family, particularly the bonds between mothers and daughters, starting with "Anywhere but Here," her debut. In the alternately satirical and poignant "My Hollywood," she continues her ruthless examination.
Simpson's premise is that contemporary life places an unfair burden on working mothers, and her Hollywood could be almost any upper-
middle-class suburb. Two women form the backbone of her story.
The anxious Claire, a composer and wife of busy sitcom writer Paul, is uncharmed by the daily grind of parenting her son, William. To be fair, William is what my grandmother would have called "a handful and then some." But Claire may have been chronically unhappy anyway. She longs only for time to write music in solitude and can't understand how she missed the "great open secret - the bargain" that other women seem to know instinctively. "Together they would make a family. The women would raise children; the men would go out into the world and provide money. Why did that contract do so little for me?"
The other half of "My Hollywood" belongs to Lola, Claire's Filipina nanny, who takes over William's care five days a week. Lana Turner they discovered at a drugstore counter, "me on a bench for the Wilshire bus," she muses. While Claire toils over her music for love, Lola believes she is more practical. "Me, I work for money," she says, explaining she only left her husband and almost-grown children to pay for her kids' college tuitions.
There's a delightful, ironic upstairs-downstairs tone to much of "My Hollywood," with each side clueless about the other. The wealthy mothers fret over preschools and hide secret cameras in teddy bears to spy on the nannies. The nannies compare notes (and paychecks) and gather intelligence on their employers through what Lola calls "The Book of Ruth," a long record in which generations of nannies have written advice on "How to Work for the White."
There is plenty of humor to be found in such cultural misunderstandings, but Simpson also reveals the casual prejudices that define the tricky relationship between employers and employees. "You can have her as long as you want," Paul tells a
friend begging for Lola's
help and expertise, dismissing her as if she were indentured. Lola may be practical, but she is not immune to insult: "This permission pushes me down from the head." Children grow; alliances form and break. Marriages crumble. Claire wrestles with the ongoing problem of her unstable mother. Lola discovers she can't bear to take a better-paying job because she'd have to leave William. "So Lola is romantic after all," she muses wryly. "I am the one who gave up the big bucks for love."
Yes, love peeks out sometimes in "My Hollywood" in the most unexpected places. It's what keeps our worlds - Claire's, Lola's, yours, mine - turning.