My Hollywood - that possessive pronoun highlights the underlying tension in Mona Simpson's novel about the domestic tug of war between mothers and nannies for possession of the precious, frustrating, fragile and ultimately elusive little creatures they both profess to love.
The story, which is set mostly on the outskirts of Los Angeles, revolves around the movie industry. The men who write and produce for television and film are peripheral characters, as are the celebrities who decorate the red carpets on awards nights. The real story is behind the scenes, as it always is, in the frustrations and ambitions of the supporting cast: the wives and baby sitters left behind every morning with the children in kitchens, coffee bars and playgroups.
We quickly learn that this is a novel told in two voices. The first belongs to Claire, a hapless late-30s cellist who aspires to compose symphonies, married to Paul, who wants to write TV sitcoms. Both are talented and each has promised the other, when they were single and living in New York City, that marriage and children require a 50-50 commitment. Yet, Claire soon finds herself married, the insecure mother of baby William, and living in a rented house in Santa Monica so that Paul "can have his chance" to write a hit comedy show on TV. Why are we not surprised?
The second voice belongs to Lola, a mid-50s Filipina who works as a nanny so she can send money home every week to her husband and five children in Tagaytay, 30-some kilometres outside of Manila. After interviewing a dozen child-minders, and hiring and firing a few, a desperate Claire starts trolling the local parks and setting up interviews in coffee shops. "My generation's adultery, I thought, scanning the tables for the one dark head among the blondes." One day she spots Lola sitting on a park bench and hires her without references. "I liked the way she looked. She was small, dark and well-joined," Claire tells us, as though she were a teenage boy seeking a date for high school prom.
Surprisingly, Lola does not turn out to be an axe murderer, child molester or front for a white slave ring. So why is she unemployed, we wonder, in the first jarring note in this composition for two voices played out in alternating chapters. Can it be that Lola is so good that ultimately she threatens a mother's dominance over her own child? Is that why she is sitting on a bench, searching out a new family that will need her for those claustrophobic and incessantly demanding early years of a child's life? Claire doesn't ask and Lola doesn't tell - at least not directly.
Lola is the idealized nanny: competent, calm, trustworthy and loyal. When Claire's friends - a film producer, which makes him higher up in the entertainment shoal than her husband Paul, and his neurotic wife - try to lure Lola away with a higher wage, she declines because she can't bear to part from her beloved William. She organizes playgroups for the little boy, eats dinner with Claire, whose husband is never home, and serves as a guide and unofficial employment scout for other nannies.
A scene early on has Claire flying back to New York to perform in a concert, accompanied by baby William, who is still nursing, and Lola. In the hotel room, Lola, who is being paid extra to accompany the frantic Claire, comes across the cheque that her employer has received for the performance and is shocked to realize that Claire is paying her more to look after William than she is earning herself. "A mystery. She is doing this for something else. Me I work for money."
Maybe that is what Lola tells herself, and us, but the truth is much more opaque. Gradually we learn that Lola's five children are grown and educated - her youngest is graduating from medical school - and her family longs to have her back home, where she can finally play with her own grandchildren, retire with her husband and gossip with her friends. But that would mean abandoning the working life, the career, she has built. And that she cannot do.
Simpson is at her most empathetic when she is writing the Lola chapters, and revealing the complicated layers of the nanny's life, on and off the job, both in the United States and back home. This is a much more subtle exposition of the master-and-servant hierarchy than you find in bestselling exposés in which mother and nanny are exploiting each other. There are parallel aspirations between Claire, who wants both a career and a child, and Lola, who abandons her own children to buy them a "better" life with the wages she earns taking care of other women's children.
Inevitably, the child will outgrow the sexless love triangle formed between mother and nanny and flee both ardent suitors, leaving them to do … what? That is the crux of Simpson's novel, her first in a decade (she admits in the acknowledgments that she "worked on [the book]for too many years"). In a denouement that while satisfying is also predictable, Claire and Lola come together again, in another caregiving arrangement at the opposite end of life. Like an old married couple, they have grown accustomed to each other's ways.
Sandra Martin is a senior feature writer for The Globe and Mail. Her most recent book is The First Man In My Life: Daughters Write About Their Fathers.Report Typo/Error
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