A new novel from Mona Simpson looks at two mothers from different worlds and the relationships they have with themselves, their children and each other.
IN MY HOLLYWOOD (Knopf, $27), a novel that reads like a more realistic version of The Nanny Diaries, author Mona Simpson (who debuted with the 1987 best-seller Anywhere but Here and most recently published Off Keck Road a decade ago) takes a magnifying glass to modern motherhood by examining the relationship between new mom Claire and Lola, the nanny Claire hires at a bus stop without checking her references.
With languidly paced prose, Simpson deftly dissects the class gap that separates Claire — a promising composer who has lost her groove since the birth of William, who is described as “more furious than other babies, more bereft” — and Lola, who has five children of her own back in the Philippines, for whom she is trying to provide. Though the novel is set in Los Angeles, the action stays far away from the glitz and glamour of the titular California town. Aside from Claire’s husband Paul’s TV writing gig, the closest readers get to Hollywood is Lola’s fateful bus-stop meeting, which she compares to Lana Turner being discovered at a Schraft’s convenience store. Claire, meanwhile, describes the women who were interviewed for (and denied) the nanny position before Lola as the polar opposite of the efficient babysitters seen on film: “Three toothless, more than half heavily made up, a few truly ragged, they resembled the hags of Grimm more than Juliet’s nurse or any Disney nannies.”
The dual protagonists take turns narrating each first-person chapter in a book that abounds with doubles. Claire and Paul eventually become friendly with another couple whose son is also tended by Lola on the weekends, while Lola acquires a nanny understudy whom she both nurtures and views as competition.
But the fact that Claire and Lola co-star in the story, and in some ways reflect each other, does not imply equality. In a novel a touch stronger on atmosphere and detail than on plot, Simpson exposes the imbalance of power between Claire, whose life is an open book to her employee, and Lola — who “lives in” and even surreptitiously buys Claire the adult diapers she needs — but whom Claire knows little about.
The reader gets a long peek behind the curtain of Lola’s life, however, observing her as she gathers regularly with a group of other nannies, who reflect on their lives back home. And though Claire is given the first word of the book, Lola is given the last. Indeed, it’s her voice that lingers long after this moody tale of separate and unequal women’s lives has ended.