'My Hollywood' Deconstructs Mother-Nanny Bond

My Hollywood
My Hollywood
By Mona Simpson
Hardcover, 384 pages
Knopf
List price: $26.95
Read An Excerpt

In her resonant and timely fifth novel, My Hollywood, Mona Simpson takes the pulse of a group of privileged Santa Monica mothers, women who expect to have careers and family (or husbands who support them in high style) but who depend upon nannies to make it all work.

Claire, Simpson's narrator, was raised by a mentally ill single mother and continually finds herself inadequate. This despite a modest success as a composer (commissions, performances, a Guggenheim fellowship). Claire feels humiliated because she and her husband, Paul, a TV sitcom writer, live in a rented house. She considers herself dowdy in comparison with the wives of his colleagues and counts on Paul to bolster her confidence. "Paul could always soothe my envy, my ever-long sense of being outside a better life," Claire says.

When her son, William, is born, Claire is quickly overwhelmed. Her savior is Lola, a middle-aged mother with a husband and adult children back home in the Philippines. Lola, a leader in the Filipina nanny network, works two jobs (with only a half-day off a week) to send money home to put her youngest daughter through medical school. Soon, Lola has bonded with William and given Claire a rare sense of calm.

In her gradually unfolding, finely tuned narrative, Simpson shows how, for many women, the nanny-mom relationship grows to be more intimate than marriage. The obvious flaw in the relationship is that money changes hands. The nannies are paid pawns in an elaborate game of social status that includes moments when friends try to lure away the best for higher wages.

Mona Simpson i i

hide captionMona Simpson is also the author of The Lost Father and Anywhere But Here.

Gasper Tringale
Mona Simpson

Mona Simpson is also the author of The Lost Father and Anywhere But Here.

Gasper Tringale

Simpson underscores this social divide with sharply etched parallel scenes. In one, the moms compare notes on their nannies while sitting in the kitchen at a dinner party. ("How many times a week does she change the sheets?") A few days later, one of the other nannies shows the group a video she made secretly while working in the kitchen that night. "We see the dark hand of the helper chopping, taking the pan," Lola reports as they watch, "while the women with their shaky small voices make plans for the improvement of their lives."

Simpson also explores the nannies' Hollywood dreams. The daughter of one of them ends up marrying a client's son, a UCLA film school graduate: "House in Brentwood! North of Sunset! The husband works for Fox Studio!" Lola notes.

Aspirational yearning and emotional attachments aside, Simpson makes painfully clear that the future for these hardworking and nurturing nannies is not at all secure. My Hollywood offers a cool vision of the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the city where dreams only occasionally come true.

Excerpt: 'My Hollywood'

My Hollywood
My Hollywood
By Mona Simpson
Hardcover, 384 pages
Knopf
List price: $26.95

"Come on comeon comeon comeon comeon. Come to Lola. I have something for you." Because he is very angry.

Today it is the mother he was hitting. She has her hand over her eye and I dab ice, the way I do his boo-boos. She lets her face in my hands. Then I take him away. But Williamo, he is strong. I cannot so easily hold. And Lola told a lie. I do not have anything. So I make promises. "Some-a-day," I whisper, "I will bring you home with me. And there we will make the ice candy."

He lies still, not any longer fighting. His bones fall in a pattern, like the veins of a leaf.

"I will put you in my pocket and feed you one candy every day. You will be happy. Because the ocean at our place it is very blue. The sky higher than here. And the fruits that grow on trees, very sweet." Jackfruit, durian, lanzones. Attis. Santol.

"In my pocket I will give you one lychee. You can bounce for a ball."

"If you were a kangaroo you would have a pouch," he grumbles, better now, slower the heart.

Through the window I see my employer. She looks like she has too much assigned to her; she cannot complete it all before she dies. She holds the ice and paces, talking long-distance to a woman who reads books about the raising of children. When my employer becomes upset she calls this friend. My employer has the American problem of guilt. But you should not be guilty to your children. It is for them that you are working! Then I remember that check for a thousand, long ago. I do not like to think that; it still opens a taste of confusion.

But Williamo, he is better now. Only the mouth smears. I promise him candy, not the ice candy, just candy we can buy here. "But-ah do not tell your mother."

I call to her, "Excuse, we are going now."

"Okay. Thanks, Lole." My employer believes she cannot live without me. She is telling her friend who reads the books that he is better with me than with her. Lil will tell her that this is perfectly normal. My employer, she needs to be left alone. But that is not a quality for a mother. Children, they are dependent for their life. "Playdate," my employer says. "I can't even stand the word."

"Do you have poo-poo?" I pull out the diaper. I am paid to smell that. But what she said to her friend is true. With me, Williamo is no problem.

My employer, she says when a baby comes home from the hospital, a Filipina should arrive with him. That, for her, would make a perfect world. "It's the Asian thing," I heard her say once. "They're more gentle with kids than Hispanics." She thinks it is all Filipinos. Maybe every single human being from Asia. I could introduce her to a few. Claire walks out carrying keys. With a child small small, it is like a ball and chain. You are never free. Not even sleeping. "Bye." She slams her car door. An escape. She will stroll in the conservatory, thinking about old songs. Americans, for them the highest time is college: books in a bent arm, on the way to learning. Us, we go to school to get the degree.

I push Williamo in the stroller and he sits. That is the good of fighting; it makes them very tired. The sun is solid, like many small weights on our arms. This neighborhood is ours during the daytime. You do not observe mothers, only in and out of cars, carrying shopping bags. In my place, I was, at one time, one of these married ladies. Now when I watch from afar, it looks like a lot of work.

I put coconut oil and zinc powder on the nose because Williamo he is very white. My albino grandson. All the while, I talk to him. Ruth told me, You have always to talk, even a baby, it is important. And I talk to him, more than my own, because my kids I had one after the other, five in nine years. In the class of two thousand and ten, at Harvard University there will be two Santa Monica boys saying to cooks in the cafeteria, Excuse, where is my adobo? Lola by then will be swaying in a hammock, back in the Philippines.

"What for?" He is young. He does not yet understand the importance of rest.

When we pass the play store, I turn in and ask, "Where is Lola from?"

He points on the globe.

"Very good."

Outside again, in the distance we see children, past tall trees, old in the glittering air. But Williamo says he does not want to play, not now, so we roll under the eucalyptus once upon a time from Australia until the eyes close. I knew from Ruth to work for a working mother. The women who stay home want their babies tucked in cribs for naps, so they can tiptoe in and peek. But Williamo, he can sleep on grass. Today he will nap in his stroller.

I told my employer already: When they go to Europe to celebrate their tenth anniversary, I will take Williamo to the Philippines. We are saving for the tickets. I cannot save much because every month I send home eighteen hundred. My kids, they are a little jealous, especially Dante and Lisa, because they have their own. And it is true. I am closer to Williamo than I am to my grandchildren. Because I see Williamo every day.

Excerpted from My Hollywood by Mona Simpson. Copyright 2010 by Mona Simpson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf.

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