Mona Simpson is best known for her critically acclaimed debut novel Anywhere But Here (1986), which was adapted into a film starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman. She is also the author of The Lost Father (1992), A Regular Guy (1996), and Off Keck Road (2000).
The Story: Claire and Paul, recent Los Angeles transplants, moved to the area to further Paul's career as a sitcom writer. But Claire, a composer and stay-at-home mom, is overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood and dissatisfied with her stagnant work life. To give his wife time to work on her music, Paul hires Lola, a sensible, full-time nanny who sends most of her earnings back to the Philippines to help her family. Narrated by both Claire and Lola, My Hollywood reveals some hard truths about wives, nannies, children, and the complexity of the modern American family.
Knopf. 384 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307273529
"The two women narrate alternating chapters, and the contrast in their voices is a double-Dutch game of masterful writing. ... A character as rich as Lola won't easily fade from anyone's mind." Missy Schwartz
"There's a delightful, ironic upstairs/downstairs tone to much of My Hollywood, with each side clueless about the other. ... There is plenty of humor to be found in such cultural misunderstandings, but Simpson also reveals the casual prejudices that define the tricky relationship between employers and employees." Connie Ogle
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[T]he 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." Ellen Akins
NY Times Book Review
"[In this] compassionate fictional exploration of this global relationship, Simpson assesses the human cost that the child-care bargain exacts on the amah, on her employer and on the children of both. ... Subtly, almost dispassionately, Simpson works her habitual magic, showing how love travels, ownerless and unbidden, among children who need adults, and adults who need children." Liesl Schillinger
San Francisco Chronicle
"[O]ne the most insightful books in years about contemporary American life. ...Lola is marvelously drawn." Gregory Leon Miller
"We're lucky to have Lola, not only to help Claire around the house and with William but also to save the novel from a moody passivity that feels as if it will eventually implode. ... [Simpson's] unusual prose style in My Hollywood is a melange--half stream of consciousness, half indirect observations--but ultimately the language captures the way her narrators render their worlds." Sharon Dilworth
"[M]ay I call this a simply dreadful book? ... Claire's passivity overwhelms, and Lola's righteousness annoys." Abby Frucht
With the publication of novels like Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus's The Nanny Diaries (2002) and Kathryn Stockett's The Help ( Selection Jan/Feb 2010), there is no shortage of books about women and their domestic employees. Even so, Simpson's pragmatic and delightfully observant nanny Lola shines in this story of contemporary child rearing. Critics did find Claire, with her privileged lifestyle and chronic self-doubt, a slightly less compelling character. And, in stark contrast to all other critics, the Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer found the novel disorganized, repetitive, and filled with exasperating characters. While a few readers may not find My Hollywood to their liking, most should find it an entertaining and heartfelt addition to Simpson's body of work.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. The novel opens with Claire recalling her first date with Paul and their agreement that for a modern couple child rearing would have to be “fifty-fifty.” Why doesn’t this work out for them?
2. Are you a parent yourself? How do you relate to Claire’s complicated feelings about motherhood?
3. Why does Claire bring Lola along to care for Will in New York, even though it means she’ll lose money on the trip?
4. Which has more of an effect on the parent-nanny relationships in the novel—race or class? Why? How does it work both ways?
5. Would this novel be different if Lola were a white American nanny?
6. Discuss the way Simpson plays with time. Why is the novel set in the 1990s? How does Simpson use foreshadowing and flash-forwards?
7. When it comes to the children, who has the most power in this novel, the parent or the nanny?
8. What is the role of fatherhood in this novel?
9. What is the significance of The Book of Ruth? Why do the nannies write in it?
10. Is Simpson’s novel at all similar to The Book of Ruth?
11. How does Claire’s relationship with her own mother influence her parenting? Does her childhood make her a better parent?
12. Lola left her own children to earn money by raising other people’s kids. Does this make her a bad mother?
13. How do you think Lola’s children will turn out? Do you think they’ll have emotional scars from her years away from them?
14. Why does Lola turn down Helen and Jeff’s job offer? Why doesn’t she mention it to Claire and Paul?
15. Discuss gender roles as presented in the novel. How does being male or female affect the characters’ lives?
16. Which man is a better husband and father—Paul or Jeff? Why?
17. In what ways are Claire’s and Lola’s marriages similar?
18. Examine the relationship between Lola and Lucy. Why does Lola do so much for this young woman?
19. Reread and discuss the scene in which China drowns (page 246). Who is responsible? What do we learn about the nannies from this episode?
20. Does Claire feel there is a distinction between her career and her music? Which is central to her?
21. Which character has the most regrets? Are there any central characters who have none?
22. What is the significance of the Neruda poem on page 349? What is Judith’s intention in giving Lola this poem?
23. Why does Lola return to the Philippines? What does she imagine her life will be like there?
24. What was your first thought about Claire’s surprise visit to Tagaytay? Why do you think she decided to go?
25. Discuss Lola’s final chapter. Do you think she’s happy in the end?
26. This novel examines the famous Beatles line “Money can’t buy me love.” In a sense, Paul and Claire try to buy love for their son. Do you think love can be bought and sold?