Jane, the grave, sensible, put-upon child-heroine of Mona Simpson's unshowily intelligent third novel, was born in a commune. Her mother, Mary, is a hippy and artist. Her father, Owens, rejected her soon after conception. Jane leads an erratic, unwashed life, the "collected odd convictions of solitaries" passing for her education. And when she's 10 - "before she's truly mastered the art of riding a bicycle" - Mary teaches Jane to drive a truck and sends her off, alone, across the mountains to Alta, the swish Californian suburb where Owens lives.
Slipping into his life (swiftly followed by Mary), Jane finds that things in her father's house run along similarly eccentric lines. Her skewed childhood experiences only prove what she already knows - that the adults around her don't know how to make themselves, let alone their dependents, happy.
Jane's responses permeate the novel but Owens is its star. Emotionally naive, boyishly attractive, he is an ex-hippy whose off-the-wall ideas have earned him fame and fortune. Self-consciously free and funky (but in fact a frigid control-freak who panics when he eats butter by mistake) he dabbles in invention, toys with presidential politics, eats only fruit and wonders whether his (beautiful, worthy, vegetarian) girlfriend, Olivia, is enough for him.
A man "too busy to flush toilets" - and who prides himself on running his life according to his own stiff principles - he remains oblivious, intensely judgemental of others, yet woefully needy of their adoration. Discovering Jane to be a bright, attractive and, most significantly, well- liked child, he decides he is after all her father. Moth-like in his pursuit of the bright, relentlessly feeding off the whole-hearted commitment of others, Owens is unfixed, unreliable, fickle. There are times when you want to shake the man, when you want to yell encouragement to those who put him down: Olivia, tolerant of but genuinely unimpressed by his fame, is secretly relieved to find he hasn't made it into a Who's Who, "the dictionary he considered to be standard". And when Mary remarks dolefully that she liked him best when he was a poet, he replies, "Maybe I still am a poet, but I'm just expressing myself in different ways." Jane is quick to yell from the bathroom, "Poets write poetry."
Owens's foil is Noah - the sensitive, lonely, wheelchair-bound scientist who longs for marriage and children, yet despairs of ever losing his virginity. "I could take care of a child," he opines, flinching at Owens' casual treatment of Jane. "I would have shaped my days around her." (Later, incidentally, Noah gets the sexiest, most memorable and laudably risky scene in the book.)
Simpson's prose brings to mind a lot of the unsentimental urban clutter of Anne Tyler, yet her sentences have a glassy compactness, her jokes are frequent and smart and her truths memorably original and new. She's sometimes hard to follow, wilfully haphazard, touching on each idea only briefly enough to ignite it and leaving it smouldering, expecting you to do the rest. Plot goes vague on you - half-joined, half-finished - and narrative viewpoints shift randomly in a way which is at first annoying but, as you adapt, subtle and real.
Halfway through I was cross and distracted, longing for some movement, some revelation to take me forward. By the end, I was overwhelmed by such a dense-knit, psychologically ambitious book. It is a novel where ideas fray and leak daringly into each other and the mess of humanity creeps up slowly and dangerously. It finally persuades you that doubt, hesitation and compromise can also be necessary and beautiful. And its gentle climax - for which you must wait 300-odd pages - jolts the heart.Reuse content