Mona Simpson Negotiates the Nanny Chronicles in “My Hollywood”
In her latest book, My Hollywood, Mona Simpson, perhaps one of the ultimate insiders, takes a look at upper-class Los Angeles from the singularly intimate perspective of an ultimate outsider: the immigrant nanny.
Simpson’s spectacularly well-received first book, Anywhere But Here (1987), was made into a movie in 1999. She went on to write four other novels, including Off Keck Road (2000) which won the PEN/Faulkner Award. She will speak about My Hollywood at the Autry on Sunday, July 10.
Perhaps the book is most successful because, besides getting into the head of Lola, a Filipina caretaker, Simpson also reaches back into her own past, into the days when, as a new mother, she tried to make sense of how to care for this terrifying gift called a baby. That is the other voice in the book: Claire, a successful composer who feels herself woefully unprepared, emotionally and physically, for mothering her 17-week-old William. Not parenting, which somehow gets shoehorned into the busy days of the professional women and men who drive into the garages down her street. But mothering, for which she guesses Lola can provide her a field guide.
“When I moved here, I had a young baby,” she said this week in an interview at a Santa Monica coffee shop. “I basically took the baby to the park by myself in those days. I didn’t know people. . . . At the time of day I happened to go, just coincidentally, there didn’t seem to be parents there. There happened to be nannies. So I fell in with a group of nannies.”
The nannies had formed cliques according to language, and Simpson said the English speakers were often Filipina.
“I became sort of enchanted with their English,” she said. “That’s what I think started me. And then I heard more about their lives.”
Simpson confesses that the relationship that develops between Claire and Lola was nothing that occurred to her personally. Instead, because she taught at UCLA, her children’s caretakers were a succession of students working more or less as au pairs. And yet, she became intrigued with the strange mix of intimacy and formality, trust and risk that was such a big part of these women’s lives. But what got her hooked was the way they talked.
“As a writer, one is always attracted to new phrases and new ways of twisting the language that seem particularly apt” Simpson said. “Lots of their phrases would be new or a little bit ungrammatical, but particularly telling and resonant. So I was attracted to that, but also I was interested in their perspective on being here and what their lives were like, what they thought of the way we brought up children and their perspective on their children. It was all just very compelling.”
But Simpson at the time didn’t take the nannies on as a research project for a future book. She was back in Los Angeles after many years of living in New York. She had yet to form her networks. The Filipina nannies became her friends.
New York Times writer Lisl Schillinger, in reviewing Simpson’s novel last year, noted the rash of books and plays that traveled this territory through the first decade of the 21st Century, including The Nanny Diaries (2002) by Emma McLaughlin, Living Out (2003), a play by Lisa Loomer, as well as the non-fiction And Nanny Makes Three (2007) by Jessika Auerbach.
“Simpson assesses the human cost that the child-care bargain exacts on the amah, on her employer and on the children of both,” Schillinger writes. “Subtly, almost dispassionately, Simpson works her habitual magic, showing how love travels, ownerless and unbidden, among children who need adults, and adults who need children.”
Because Claire finds that, despite her feelings of inadequacy, she needs her William. And she is not alone.
“I think everyone, or at least everyone I knew, felt that the first time through,” Simpson said. “It’s just such a monumental responsibility and one that you really can’t grasp.”
Even so, the conundrum is that one has to continue with other aspects of life: work, for example. Simpson talked about how, when her children were still small, a writer friend ‘s husband told her, “The good thing about being a writer is that nobody really knows how much you work.”
“You can sort of play it both ways,” she said. “If your in-laws feel you should be having more time with the children, they don’t really know how much time you spend with the children. But there’s something kind of creepy about that. The reason women find themselves culturally in such a precarious position sometimes. They don’t know what is expected of them.”
And in that sense, both Claire and Lola share the same tight-rope.
“Most women are now working, and this is the first generation that’s really had this fact,” Simpson said. “That’s been a profound shift, and how we’ve handled that, it’s been a huge social shift.”
To hear Simpson reading from a draft of My Hollywood for the radio show “This American Life,” click here.