A screenwriter and his wife, a composer, hire a Filipina nanny to help raise their son.
Beginning with her first novel, the critically acclaimed bestseller "Anywhere But Here," Hollywood has been a presence in Mona Simpson's work -- sometimes overtly, sometimes indirectly, but always as a vision of romance and beauty and meaning shimmering on the horizon of "real life." It's that alternate world where plots and relationships make a certain sense, as yours probably never will. And motherhood, another perennial concern of Simpson's, is where Hollywood and life part company most dramatically.
In her earlier works Simpson has focused on the anti-Hollywood version of motherhood from the daughter's point of view (in fact, the crazy mother of those books makes an appearance in this one, as a wildly unreliable babysitter). In the fictional world of "My Hollywood," motherhood is the province of the two main characters: Claire, a composer and uneasy new mother displaced to Los Angeles while her husband tries to break into writing for television comedy, and Lola ("grandmother" in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines), the family's nanny.
Much of the story, which alternates between mother and nanny, is concerned with how Claire, in caring for her son, can (or can't) be both herself and the ideal wife and mother that her husband, Hollywood and the larger culture demand. Turning this story of large cultural issues into something personal, private and intimate is what Mona Simpson does well. As much as we care about her character's career, and how that character's son figures in the games and parties and complexities of the larger community, mostly we want mother and son and nanny to be happy.
OK, mostly we want the little boy and the nanny to be happy. Because though the mother's side of "My Hollywood" is somewhat familiar (and tracks with some of Simpson's own story), the author does the wondrous work of making the subculture of Filipina nannies painfully real and moving and funny, and making Lola's story, rendered in a beautifully quirky and utterly believable broken English, say far more about love and motherhood -- and Claire -- than Claire herself ever could.
From both sides of the nanny divide we see the L.A. mothers -- gossipy, self-obsessed, neglectful, overbearing, needy, as loving of their children as they are baffled about what to do with them. But we only see into the life and world of Lola from her own perspective: To the American women, she and the other nannies exist only to the extent that the mothers want or need them.
Again and again, Lola comments on the peculiarity of her American employers. She says, for instance, "The wives, they are all looking for a romance story." But "at the bottom of most lives is the need of money." Lola, however, has put her children through college and medical school by working as a nanny and really needs no more money; she is moved by the need of the child she tends. "I had my love, too," she says, "mine not the shape of romance."
Ellen Akins is a novelist in Cornucopia, Wis., and teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.