August 18, 2010
A mother and her nanny
Among the most crucial but also volatile relationships in human life is the one between a domestic worker — a housekeeper, a nanny, a caregiver — and his or her employer. Various aspects of such relationships have been considered in novels ranging from “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” to Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help,” and most recently in Mona Simpson’s smart, endearing, and bittersweet new novel, “My Hollywood” (Knopf: $26.95).
Simpson, author of “Anywhere But Here” and “Off Keck Road,” tells the tale of two women — a mother and her nanny — and allows us to penetrate the mysteries the bind them together in ways that are sometimes painful but always poignant, a knot of fate that cannot be untied.
One of the two narrators of “My Hollywood” is Claire, a 38-year-old concert musician who dutifully follows her 30-year-old husband to Los Angeles so he can take his shot at becoming a television comedy writer. She describes Paul as “a perfect profile, dark smooth skin, Grecian hair, the small wire glasses of a yeshiva boy you wanted to lift off,” but she has ambitions of her own: “I held his tremendous hope like an egg found in a fallen nest,” she muses, “but I wanted something too – what I’d always had.”
The other voice we hear belongs to Lola, the middle-aged Filipina whom Paul and Claire hire to take care of their infant son, William. “Lana Turner they discovered at the Schraft counter, me on a bench for the Wilshire bus,” cracks Lola. “Claire hired me for a nanny, live-in, without even asking a reference. [T]he first day, I found my employer crying by the heating grate. She was trying to breast-feed and she had very little. Maybe she is too old, I thought. My uncle in Visayas keeps cows and after four, five years, they will not anymore milk.”
Right from the beginning, then, Simpson shows us how the intimate politics of mother and nanny have nothing to do with who is paying whom. Much more important are the arcane skills and secret knowledge that Lola seems to possess and Claire lacks. “Once, music had been enough for my whole happiness,” Claire muses. “But then I’d begun to want a life. Mistake. Now I had one and was not good at it.” Lola sees what’s at stake: “My employer, she needs to be left alone. But that is not a quality for a mother. Children, they are dependent for their life.”
Lola and her fellow care-givers are given lives and histories that would be invisible to most of their employers in real life. We are introduced to Ruth, a Filipina who acts as a guru for newly-arrived domestic workers — “Right away, the first night, Ruth asked, Baby or elderly?” — and we are privileged to glimpse “The Book of Ruth,” a scrapbook in which they share their insights and experiences on the subject of “How to Work for the White.” One piece of advice pasted into the book announces a harsh fact that is wholly unexpected but makes perfect sense: “IF THE DOG LIKES YOU, YOU’RE HIRED.” At perhaps the most heart-breaking moment in the book, Lola herself learns that a nanny and her boss can share the same unhappy fate. “My weekend and five-day employers, my wand turned them into friends,” she observes. “So why is not the contract of Paul renewed?”
Claire’s life will be far more familiar to the reader — marital tensions, social frictions, career frustrations, parenting crises, all of which tear at her sense of self-worth. “Gramma Ceil called the other day,” Paul tells Claire, “and said, ‘She’s been in Carnegie Hall, why doesn’t she quit while she’s ahead?’” She cannot seem to turn in any direction without being reminded of her losses and limitations: “The woman falls in love with her children, my landlord said, handing me the rent receipt,” recalls Claire. “But what if I didn’t? Children sniveled. Children dripped.” And Paul and Claire go to a couples’ counselor, she tells Claire: “More than half my practice is with women who would give their right arm for a man like Paul.”
A more cynical reader might complain that Lola is endowed with powers that only seem magical because the urban intelligentsia is so out of touch with the primal skills of child-bearing and child-rearing that have been practiced for many thousands of years. For me, however, Simpson is on target when she obliquely ridicules Paul because he yearns only to win a laugh for one of his jokes at the writer’s table and shows how an artful and accomplished woman like Claire feels when she is told that she needs to take “private parenting lessons.” And, just as Simpson intended, I fell in love with Lola, and for all the right reasons.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.