My Hollywood by Mona Simpson
This novel tells the story of a group of mothers: a composer with a husband who’s a comedy writer for TV, a stay-at-home mom, and Lola, a mother from the Philippines who has taken work as a nanny in LA to pay for her daughters’ medical school education back home. Simpson eloquently describes what each of them gains and loses by holding onto (or letting go of) their own work and the chance to be a presence in their children’s lives. If this sounds like an indictment of the American marital division of labor, it isn’t; Simpson doesn’t come up with any answers or blame. She may be silently asking a question, though: should we all have children? Claire isn’t presented with someone without maternal feeling, but her commitment to her music makes her think she shouldn’t. Her future husband asks her:
“Does Yo-Yo Ma have kids?”
“Madame Ma, c’est moi.” He had an odd brightness I’d heard all my life. You can be both! my mother had said. But my mother was mentally ill.
He was not. I believed him, a trumpet promise. Some Bach came into my fingers. Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor. The haunting Prelude. I had to sit on my hand.
That eventing, our first date, we had a conversation about who would do what.
As Ron Charles points out in his video review, Lola, the composer’s nanny, is as fully developed a character as Claire is. She, too, has abdicated being present in her children’s lives, not for an artistic endeavor, but to raise other people’s children, while financing her children’s education. Her commitment to her charges surpasses that of their own parents, and possibly even her commitment to her own children.
This book is haunting, and while it asks serious questions about what it means to be a parent, it has humor, too. I think anyone who’s ever thought about what we give up to have children would find it a consuming read.