The American novelist Mona Simpson is no stranger to interesting family dynamics. She didn't meet her biological brother, the late Steve Jobs, until she was 25. From her memorable debut Anyway But Here, her fiction has long been preoccupied with the way in which parents shape their children's notion of belonging and home. Here she explores a familial construct of another kind - the ties of attachment binding a mother, her baby son and his nanny.
Narrated by both mother and home help, the novel plunges straight into the milky maelstrom of early parenthood. Claire, a Guggenheim-winning composer based in Santa Monica, is in her late thirties when she has her first baby. Brought low by childbirth, she soon convinces herself that she's not only an unfit mother but that her four-month-old son is aware of her failings: "Will and I both felt astonished that he was stuck with me." Unnerved by his colicky discontent, she hires a nanny, Lola: a 52-year-old Filipina mother of five.
Rather than a satire lampooning Hollywood parenting, Simpson's novel unravels the inner lives of her two heroines. In some ways Claire is as much an outsider as the newly arrived Lola. Less well off than most Hollywood wives, more preoccupied with her practising her scales than her Kegels, she has found it hard to make friends. Her marriage to Paul, a television writer, starts to crumble and she takes to monitoring with horrid fascination the still intimate bond between her husband's best friend, Jeff, and his attractive wife, Helen.
Lola's approach to life may be more down-to-earth, but her problems are no less complex. At first she's bemused by an employer so skint she's forced to hunt under the sofa for latte money. She knows she should work for a family with income to burn, but has fallen under the spell of "Williamo". When she does return to Manila, her relatives seem like strangers, and she discovers that her husband, Bong Bong, has left her for another woman. "My children," she says, "they will not have to go anywhere. They can stay home. That is what I did for my life."
At times the novel proves an overly amorphous affair, never quite making its mind up about what kind of book it wants to be. Yet as always with Simpson's work, the insight and stylistic flair keep drawing you back. This novel nails the post-Freudian fear that all children will return - hopefully not in the manner of Lionel Shriver's Kevin - to lay the blame squarely at their parents' door.Reuse content