My relationship with my longtime baby-sitter is as mundane as it is mysterious. She has watched over all three of my children for nearly a decade. I have watched her, in turn, become a mother of three, an American citizen, and then a divorcee. We are both intimate with the details of each other’s lives, and yet I suspect that we are missing the bigger picture. In my mind, for example, I am entirely dependent on her, and yet she surely sees it as the other way around. Recently she accidentally crashed the car into a central pillar of our house. She immediately assumed I would fire her, and I can honestly say the thought never crossed my mind. What’s a pile of bricks compared with a decade’s worth of love for my children? Our radically different reactions reminded me that after all this time we are still largely strangers.
It is this affection based on mutual misunderstanding that Mona Simpson explores in her new novel, My Hollywood. In alternating chapters, she tells the stories of Claire, a classical-music composer who moved to Hollywood for her husband’s job, and Lola, the Filipina nanny she hires to take care of her son. The early details of their meeting are telling if somewhat familiar. Claire assumes that Lola is neat because she is Filipina, when in fact cleanliness is a strain for her. Lola assumes that Claire is rich until she finds the paycheck given to Claire for one of her concerts—a total of $1,000. They live together and build a relationship despite the enormous blind spots.
Simpson has said she wanted to get beyond the “extreme stereotypes” of the haughty socialite who bosses around the subservient ethnic. Instead, she was aiming for a domestic novel empathizing with both the employer and the employed. This narrow goal she accomplishes. Claire is a decent and only somewhat impotent employer who appreciates Lola’s help. Lola, a queen bee among the nannies, is money-obsessed but not catty, and deeply loyal to Claire and her son, William, whom she calls Williamo. And the novel’s great innovation is Lola’s voice, a distinctive, invented (and mostly convincing) patois.
Unfortunately, Claire’s new mother dilemmas are as narrow and familiar as the ones chronicled daily on the message boards of urbanbaby.com and weekly in the New York Times Sunday styles section. She insists her child can only have breast milk although she doesn’t produce quite enough of it; she feels guilty leaving him behind on a two-day work trip so she makes Lola come along; she has a deadline to meet but can’t seem to get any work done; her husband, an aspiring TV comedy writer, never, ever makes it home for dinner, and of course they never have sex. She faces these challenges with Prufrock-level passivity. She contemplates an affair with their glamorous friend Jeff but fails to go through with it. At parties, she can’t remember how to make conversations. She likes to cook, thank god, but mostly she cries a lot in her closet. The whole of her is so dull and unappealing that I found myself yearning for Mrs. X, the anxious socialite from The Nanny Diaries, or better yet, Adele, the dangerously manipulative but deeply compelling mother of Simpson’s first novel, Anywhere but Here.
In this postcolonial age, the nannies must get their revenge, and Simpson has made herself a vessel for their discontentment. (She wrote an op-ed advocating that nannies be paid on the books and a wonderful review of Jonathan Swift’s reissued Directions to Servants.) This book’s attention to Lola makes it part of a wave of new nanny fiction, including the deliciously wicked Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky, where the envious nanny steals from the wife and sleeps with the husband, and the upcoming Minding Ben, by Victoria Brown, based on her own experiences as a young nanny from Trinidad in the early ‘90s.
Lola’s voice sometimes slips—she uses improbable words such as “unabridged,” and occasionally the character strays into the “Wise Old Ethnic” stereotype: She concocts some magic soup from the Philippines to get the milk going or secretly feeds the baby formula. But her basic orientation is convincing. Claire works for creative satisfaction, and Lola works for money. She and Williamo count out pennies to buy themselves treats, and she keeps a constant running tally of cash accumulated in her head. She has no guilt about having left her own children because she can directly trace the line from her cash contributions to their success. When she turns out a better offer from another family because she is so attached to Williamo, she is acutely aware of the weekly sums she is giving up, whereas Claire is totally oblivious to her sacrifice.
The crescendo of the novel is so muted that it’s easy to miss. A preschool director convinces Claire that Lola can’t discipline William, so Claire, as Lola puts it, gives her the chop. This is a Nanny Diaries-style plot twist and wholly unconvincing. Claire has up to this point shown no ambivalence about Lola, and her tendencies run to isolation and depression more than neuroticism. Still, it leads to the most interesting parts of the novel. Like Dr. Aziz in Passage to India, Lola is made instantly aware of how she has misunderstood the ruling class. Her status in the nanny hierarchy is suddenly irrelevant, and she falls back into the underworld of the unemployed immigrant. She has adventures with families much more interesting than Claire’s and goes back to the Philippines to visit her husband, Bong Bong, one of the more intriguing minor characters in the novel who has, in her absence, taken up with another woman. Unfortunately this action and intrigue only takes up a few short chapters and then abruptly comes to an end when Claire, newly separated and in search of a happy ending, shows up in the Philippines and ruins the fun.
It’s possible that to create an interesting fictional nanny you have to creatively smother the mother. Or it’s possible that I am just not the right audience for this novel. After my third child was born, something in me snapped. All those heated debates—the breast milk, the nanny guilt, the absent husbands—suddenly seemed about as interesting to me as the manual explaining how to hook up my computer monitor. I can no longer imagine why a magazine would devote its cover to the trials of parenting toddlers or why a novel would have patience for a woman who can’t leave her baby for two days. If such things are going to keep my attention, they will have to be wrapped up with some infidelity and shockingly bad mothering and the unrepentant pulp voice of someone like Bad Marie. Part of me suspects Simpson also might have grown bored by the debates as well. Why else would someone with such a gift for creating such dastardly and compelling parents have created such a bland one?