Mona Simpson’s first novel in a decade examines a milieu most of us don’t inhabit: that of wealthy Los Angeles parents. These are people working in movies or television, either friendly with the famous or famous themselves. They earn much money, have little time and, in this novel, hire Filipina nannies to plug the holes where parenting should be. These nannies also cook, clean, smooth the family’s rough edges, and keep secrets. Or not, as the case may be.
Lola, whose full name is Wanda Luwanza, leaves her native Philippines intending to send money home to her family, particularly her daughter, Issa, who is commencing medical school. At 56, a mother and wife, Lola is no fool. Though she pushes her children to be successful, she often reminds the reader that as a schoolgirl she was “ a clown”, more interested in making her classmates laugh than in learning. The girl who liked to laugh is long gone, replaced by a practical, unflappable woman who arrives to nanny an infant named William.
William’s parents, Paul and Claire, are artists. He writes, she composes. When Hollywood calls in the form of television comedy, the couple leaves New York City for California. They land in Santa Monica. They have William. From there, the center fails to hold.
Simpson’s Los Angeles pits some of the world’s wealthiest people against some of the poorest. She is unsparing, even merciless, in her observations. The Filipinas in My Hollywood are women working in a netherworld of housecleaning, diaper changing, and rocking crying infants in the night. Some earn a great deal, including gifts of cash and jewelry.Others slave for a pittance. Their employers are bored, anxious, angry women and distant husbands.
As a working mother, Claire is unusual. Her peers find her work arcane; one mother mistakes her for a professional baker. She is moderately successful in the world of classical music, but stymied by domestic life: her husband and child flummox her. Like so many of Simpson’s protagonists, Claire is the fatherless daughter of a mentally ill mother. Terrified of repeating her mother’s errors, Claire vows to be a sort of Martha Stewart, cooking and baking beautifully, only to dissolve into tears and anxiety attacks.
She is emblematic of the mothers in the novel—women who know how to be successful, but are incapable of parenting or mastering the details of domestic life. Their children alternately frighten or annoy them. Dry cleaning is a source of rage; they are appalled by the inevitably full laundry hamper or sink full of dishes. Even if they know what to do, they don’t want to do it. After all, isn’t success their birthright?
Betty Friedan and her ilk were wrong: you can’t have it all, at least, not if you’re an adult female. More accurately, the only way to “have it all”—the house, the nice meals, the empty hamper, the dry cleaning hung up, the dishes washed, the child changed, fed, and bathed—is to hire help.
Claire is meant to be a sympathetic character, a woman we can feel for as she struggles to negotiate the unwritten codes of female friendship, the hell of playdates, and her tremendous dependence on Lola. While it’s easy to identify with her confusion and anger at the increasingly self-centered Paul, her passivity can feel grating. She has money, looks, full-time childcare, a nice house, talent. Yet Claire is guilt-ridden, unstrung. Her child is a stranger, her marriage eroding. This doesn’t stop her from crying into the telephone at Paul, who spends his life cloistered on a studio lot, writing television comedy, eating take-out, and hanging up on his wife.
In a book populated largely by women, Paul and an acquaintance, Jeff, a successful movie producer, feature prominently as examples of male assholedom. Paul is negligent, bossy, absent; Jeff flirts and has a blatant affair. Neither man is appealing. Both are serious only about their careers and getting laid. Their children—Jeff and his wife Helen inexplicably saddle their son with the moniker Bing—barely register.
My Hollywood has one off-key note. Due to a birth complication, Claire sometimes “leaks”. There is mention of gastrointestinal distress and the inability to cure it, but precisely what is wrong and why Claire sometimes requires diapers is never made clear. At one point she laments the rich food at a restaurant, certain it will sicken her, yet Claire herself, a very good cook by Lola’s reckoning, prepares equally rich foods at home. Later in the novel she takes up running and the issue resolves, leaving this reader wondering how running can cure gastrointestinal disorders.
Lola is the novel’s true core. Hers are the eyes of the immigrant, forever amazed by the palm trees, the balmy weather beneath the polluted brown skies. She moves seamlessly between her skittish employers and fellow nannies. She visits her mentor, Ruth. Ruth is a Filipina who helps her countrywomen find decent work. She rescues immigrants trapped in slave labor situations. She also keeps a series of journals titled The Book of Ruth, or How to Work For the White.
Every nanny, housekeeper, or babysitter who has passed through Ruth’s life has contributed to these volumes. Cultural information, notes on American obsessions with cleanliness, fear of garlic—all are there for the women who need to learn never to eat curry or onions, even on an “off”—a day off—as Americans do not like the smell of these foods. There are recipes for lime salads and exhortations to bathe. There are warnings never to get above one’s station, lest you be fired. “It happened to me,” writes one woman, who signs herself as La Reina, the queen.
Once a leisured woman herself, Lola voluntarily steps into the lower class so her children never have to. Her appearance in Claire’s household brings calm: she can quiet the fretful William. She cooks and cleans. She seems to do these things effortlessly. She sees all, yet knows when to speak and when to remain silent.
Lola never forgets she is not La Reina. She manages to be a commanding presence without being overbearing. She helps fellow nannies with gifts of money and advice. She copes with William as he grows into an aggressive, troubled toddler with tendencies toward biting and hitting. She helps Claire in subtle ways. It is Lola who does the heavy lifting, sometimes literally. She works seven days weekly, filling in for parents who cannot tolerate their offspring on weekends. At one job she takes a sander to the walls and repaints a duplex herself, cradling a disabled infant the entire time.
Simpson knows a great deal about Filipina life, including what nannies say and do while away from their employers. She penetrates the layers of Filipino culture, parsing hairstyles, neighborhoods, and dialects. The resulting characters are rounded, real people. Claire may be spoiled and weak, but her intentions are good, and she eventually gathers some strength to act on them.
Lola is an astute observer of Americans and American life, yet she, too, is prey to certain prejudices, finding fault with a Chinese nanny, whom she refers to as a peasant. Nor can she hide her disdain for a young Asian woman, rescued from brutal enslavement by American employers. “The slave”, as Lola calls her, is too cowardly for her tastes.
Simpson’s writing is honed, precise, sharp as the inland heat. California is its own character, a place of impossible contradictions, the shaky rock these disparate people share. Simpson lives in Santa Monica, yet writes ably of the cities Lola passes through on her bus rides to Ruth’s Eagle Rock home (Eagle Rock is inland, near Pasadena, very hot, and chronically afflicted by smog.) She writes of the palm trees, the cooling fog, the ever-present ocean, which contrasts with Ruth’s hot, crowded home, full of refugees and the welcome smells of Filipino cooking. She writes of what it means to don a ball gown and step into a waiting limousine for a ride to the Emmys, to dine at the fancy restaurants, to suffer the pangs of real estate envy, to casually wear impossibly expensive sweaters.
For all her acerbic observations, Lola is enamored of this America. She loves coffee, and treats herself to a daily cup. She also loves her charges: the sullen child she calls Williamo, the needy infant Laura, her adored Laurita.
Her own children, grown and successful on her earnings, no longer require her. Distance is unraveling her marriage to the loyal Bong Bong. What began as a question of money has crossed a dangerous border into the question of love. How, after all, does a family establish unshakable boundaries with a virtual stranger who inhabits their household, rearing their child? What happens when the nanny and child develop a bond that excludes the parents?
None of the questions My Hollywood raises—questions of love, children, parenting, the coexistence of creative work and children, the strains of modern marriage—have easy answers. The best Filipina nanny in the world cannot diminish the deep guilt that comes from leaving one’s children with strangers. Simpson realizes this, of course. She is divorced from a television comedy writer. Her children are now ten and 16. Is it a coincidence that My Hollywood is her first book in a decade? Draw your own conclusions.