Mona Simpson was a new mother when she moved back to Los Angeles in 1993. She presumed it would be a temporary relocation, but she's still there and her new book, My Hollywood: A Novel (Knopf), Simpson's first full-length work in a decade owes a serious debt to the move. As a young mother, Simpson frequented parks near her home in Santa Monica. She discovered that she was more interested in the lives of the nannies than in her fellow mothers.
"I didn't have any friends because I hadn't lived here for a long, long time," Simpson says. "So I had a little baby, and I wasn't terribly good at it. I fell in more with the crowd of nannies than the crowd of moms."
Simpson became infatuated with one particular nanny who "was an amazing storyteller," and slowly the process of writing a new book began, one that explores two different Hollywoods. There's the one inhabited by Claire, a middling composer of classical music whose career orbit has been wobbled by a new planet—the birth of her son—and challenged by her husband's all-consuming efforts to break into and then maintain a career as a television writer.
And there's the real focus of the book, the Hollywood inhabited by the nanny Claire has hired, Lola, an insightful Filipina who immigrated to raise money to educate her children back home. In some ways it is a familiar story. But Simpson uses these identifiable character types to examine the nature of relations, and love, and modern urban families, as children bond with immigrant hired help as readily as with their biological parents.
"It was more the question of parenting, and who does it and how we do it," she says. "I was thinking a lot about, can one buy love?... The distinction between things that can be commoditized and the things that can't."
Simpson's 1986 novel, Anywhere but Here, established her as an adroit chronicler of fractured families, reflecting her own childhood in a fatherless household. Her subsequent books all sprang from neighboring wells. The Lost Father in 1992 was about her quest to find her own father, who left when she was a four-yearold in Green Bay, Wis.
A Regular Guy, in 1996, explored the absent father again, this time looking at a rich bio-tech entrepreneur and the daughter he never knew he had—the fantasy of every abandoned child, to find the absent parent absolved by ignorance, and rich, to boot.
Off Keck Road, her last novel in 2000, returned to the landscape that gave rise to Anywhere but Here, looking at the lives and dreams of some of the people who remained behind in Green Bay. With My Hollywood, Simpson, 52, in a sense, picks up the lives of the mother and daughter from Anywhere but Here. This is not a sequel, but the relationship is familiar. Despite the parallels to Simpson's own life—she was married to a television producer while she was, like Claire, trying to advance her own career as a writer— Simpson sees the core characters in her novel as slices from modern American families: overworked, stressed, uncertain. The husband, Paul, is a good father when he's around, which is rarely. Claire's relationship with her mother has its own strains. And then there's the wild-card character of Lola and the child-rearing autonomy she assumes for herself. When Claire and Paul accede to the advice of a private school counselor and fire Lola, the void, especially for their son, Will, is palpable. And that, Simpson says, is what she most wanted to explore. Claire's family provides the reason for Lola to be in Hollywood, and gives Simpson the window through which to look at a common existence that is invisible to most people.
"I did a lot of research," Simpson says. "There are thousands of women who are here working, often with their own young children left behind. That leads to a whole different vision of what it is to raise a child, what's important," Simpson says. "This book, I suppose, is a product of the global economic shift."
Scott Martelle is the author of the forthcoming The Fear Within (Rutgers).