Those who have enjoyed Mona Simpson’s much-acclaimed first novel, “Anywhere But Here,” will not be disappointed by “Casebook” (Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95). Here, too, with her distinctive wry humor and razor-sharp voice, Simpson, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the winner of the Heartland Prize from the Chicago Tribune, among other prizes, is at her best when depicting the complicated, loving, and anxiety-ridden relationship between a child and a parent—in this case a son, Miles Adler-Hart, and his mother, Iris, an accomplished mathematician, or the Mims, as he calls her. The problem is that the Mims, just divorced and presumably naïve, is in a relationship with Eli, a shady character, who makes her happy. He promises to be hers, “always, always,” although the reader suspects otherwise
It is both sad and endearing to witness Mile’s concern and sense of responsibility toward his mother, a position no child should be in. An undercurrent of danger is added to the pathos, when Miles and his friend, Hector, who is besotted by Iris, begin riffling through her drawers, listening to her phone calls with her friend, Marge, and with Eli, snooping through her notes and emails, even eavesdropping on her conversation with her therapist, thanks to a somewhat convenient location in the basement below the doctor’s office. Miles and Hector go so far as to solicit the help of Ben Orion, a kind-hearted private detective – who readily helps these two teenage boys, whom he doesn’t know. The reason Ben Orion is so willing to become involved in Miles and Hector’s spying escapades feels unexplained in the end.
The story’s pace picks up the second half of the book, when Miles and Hector, after much snooping around, and with the help of the private detective, discover devastating secrets no child has a right to. They embark on a journey of revenge—sometimes humorous, often touching—which soon spirals out of control. The real suspense is if, and when, Irene will catch up to Miles and whether it’s best that she does not. And the question is always there, hovering over everything: Why is she so slow to catch up? And where is her relationship with Eli headed? Why doesn’t Irene pick up on Eli’s warning signals? A blatant one is his lack of concern for one of her twin daughters, Boop One as Miles calls her, when her eyes turn to red slits and she breaks out in hives, an allergic reaction to a stray dog Eli brings in.
The spying is a clever authorial ploy that will lead to revelations forcing Miles to mature beyond his age. He becomes the man of the family, tends to his younger sisters, worries about his mother’s emotional state and about losing the mother he has known all his life. Although he wants his mother’s happiness, he is torn when he sees Eli put his hand on her back. “That seemed wrong. She’s ours not yours…” he thinks.
“Casebook” is many stories at once—a mother and son relationship, the coming of age of two close friends, the ups and downs and many tribulations of a divorced family, the constant longing of children for home and stability and what was, but most of all it is the story of a son who will go to great length to have his mother smile again—not a smile that is “quick, fleeting movements, a tight-lipped See.” No, not that. What he wants is “a gift.” He wants her whole face to be “in it like a nodding sunflower.” Lovely!
Dora Levy Mossanen, author of “Scent of Butterflies” and other novels, is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.