My Hollywood, Mona Simpson, Alfred A Knopf, 2010, 369 pp
This amazing novel devoured me as I devoured it. I was confined to bed, recovering from a virus but finally able to read; the perfect excuse to do what I spend most of my time doing anyway, but in this case purely for my own enjoyment.
There was so much to enjoy. Claire, new mother, wife of an aspiring TV writer, herself a composer, is quite simply adrift and overwhelmed by motherhood. Surrounded by the kinds of mothers you find in books such as The Nanny Diaries, Claire is a unique character who doesn't fit in.
Lola, who becomes Claire's nanny, is a Filipina with five children of her own back home. Her views on motherhood are in a certain way more like the other mothers in Claire's neighborhood. She works in America with the sole purpose of sending money back to the Philippines so her children can be educated and become successful adults. Despite herself, she becomes emotionally involved with her American charges, fulfilling all the nurturing impulses she had never been able to give to her own children.
This is an excruciatingly emotional book and that is what makes it so compelling. But it is also savvy with its snarky look at West Los Angeles society and its sensitive look at nanny culture. Yes, there is such a thing, comparable to the upstairs/downstairs conventions in British fiction. Mona Simpson's creation of the underbelly of immigrant life legal and illegal in modern Los Angeles, with its customs, it views on American life, its dangers and solidarities, is a feat in itself, alternately horrific and hilarious.
For several years in the first decade of the 21st century, I was a tutor in LA. Week after week, I entered homes just like the ones in My Hollywood and tried to help kids with their math and language arts. I observed mothers who had plenty of money but barely a moment to actually nurture their children. In back hallways and kitchens, I passed by the housekeepers and nannies who kept these women's homes in some kind of order. I worked with children whose attention was so fixated on the parents they rarely saw that math facts and "critical thinking" (the postmodern conception of reading comprehension) had absolutely no relevance to their lives. Because of these experiences, I know that Mona Simpson is telling the truth in her novel.
I am saying this because some reviews I have read express doubts about the veracity of the tale. Readers, you can trust Mona Simpson here. This is the real deal.