An evergreen recipe for engrossing domestic drama: take one white mother and child; add a trusted and beloved servant of lower class and variant ethnicity (accompanying and contrasting servant’s child optional); fold in romance, money, careers, remorse, prejudice, empathy and cultural conflicts. Season with both tears and laughter. Bond at high emotional temperatures for a lengthy period of years. Voila! Bourgeois-proletariat heartache soufflé!
The most famous and potent example of this delicious confection might very well be Imitation of Life, at least in its 1934 Hollywood incarnation. (Douglas Sirk’s 1959 remake is decidely inferior, all Lana Turner frigidity and distance where warmth and intimacy are needed.) Claudette Colbert as widowed mother with daughter; Louise Beavers as black woman with same. Alone, they are failing. Together, they persevere and triumph. In My Hollywood, Mona Simpson employs her sharp wit, her keen eye for the details of contemporary life, a flair for psychological probing, and clever plotting skills to update this scenario for the twenty-first century (although the novel is actually set in a 1990s milieu).
Claire and Paul and infant Will are recent transplants to L.A. Paul has his ambitious foot, so to speak, in the door of TV comedy writing, a job that demands superhuman hours and a focus that seem to necessitate neglecting wife and child. Cellist and composer Claire has put her musical career on hold with the birth of Will. Foundering and going down for the third time in the ocean of postnatal despair and helplessness, Claire stumbles upon Lola, a Filipina nanny. Lola comes to live with the couple, and soon falls in love with “Williamo.” But although Claire is relieved of solo child-rearing duties, a canker still exists at the heart of her marriage, and a dreary, unfulfilling future looms—unless she can unriddle herself and change.
Oscillating between the distinctively voiced first-person narratives of Lola and Claire, Simpson builds up, layer by intricate layer, two polar worldviews that somehow manage paradoxically to intersect at various key points, even though the two women have drastically divergent perspectives on marriage, children and vocations. Claire is Hamlet, all doubts, regrets and overthinking, while Lola is a sage old Polonius: soulful and wise, albeit somewhat stolid and sententious. And, indeed, Claire (and Paul) stab Lola through the heart at a crucial juncture in the tale. Simpson repudiates Shakespeare’s grim finality however, returning to the Imitation of Life paradigm for the ultimate resolution of the tangled relations between the two women, and ending on a mutually supportive note.
Along the way, Simpson sardonically dissects the Hollywood lifestyle. Only a very observant writer could make so much out of a restaurant dinner where two couples manage to arrive in four separate cars. The elaborate contract a third couple draws up for Lola, and the arcane rituals surrounding William’s entry to pre-school are just samples of the other skewered excesses here.
In the end, Simpson privileges neither Lola nor Claire’s path, but argues for a blending of their incomplete natures to form a whole philosophy of life, replacing the stale imitations we all too often half-heartedly accept.
–PAUL DI FILIPPO
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.