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 far behind the scenes, and the roles are filled almost exclusively by women and children. Men seem only to 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 seek to 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 satiric and poignant "My Hollywood," she continues her ruthless examination as she dissects — and finds wanting — the dynamics of modern marriage and parenthood.
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 utterly uncharmed by the daily grind of parenting her son William. To be fair, William — a puncher, a biter — 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 (on weekends, she works for a different family). "Lana Turner they discovered at the Schraft's counter, me on a bench for the Wilshire bus," she tells us. While Claire toils over her music for love — the few performances of her work around the country pay little once child care and plane fare are factored in — Lola believes she is more practical. "Me, I work for money," she says, explaining that she only left her husband and almost-grown children to make money 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.
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.
"My Hollywood" by Mona Simpson (Knopf, 384 pages, $26.95)