Tale of two mothers favors one, shortchanges the other

"My Hollywood," by Mona Simpson. Knopf, $26.95.

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If we have learned anything from the countless episodes of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" or "Orange County" or "New Jersey" and so on, it's that the more money a woman has, the less capable she'll be as a mother, a housekeeper and a wife. Poverty, it seems, provides in these instances.

Mona Simpson's latest novel underscores this axiom in spades. Claire, a composer and mother to baby William, has recently moved to Los Angeles so her husband, Paul, can write comedy shows for television. Money is not their issue.

Claire and Paul discussed the division between child care and professional aspirations long before they had their son, but Paul's chance at a Hollywood career is the real deal, and he can't cut his hours to play Mr. Mom. He's too busy even to play Dad.

Besides, Claire can, ostensibly, compose music from home. The problem, of course, is that Claire feels undermined; this wasn't what they had talked about when they were planning their lives as parents.

Paul's solution to Claire's problems is to hire a full-time nanny, something every mother in America would kill for, but live-in help doesn't ease Claire's angst. She is simply overwhelmed by everything, and we get to hear all about it -- she's incontinent, her husband is gone 17 hours a day, she has an ambivalent crush on one of her friends, she worries about William's school, she's intimidated by the women of Hollywood, her mother isn't stable, her music studio is too sunny, she doesn't know how to play with her son, nothing seems to bring her any joy.

To add fuel to her irksomeness, Claire also has a house cleaner. 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. Lola, fortunately, gives the novel a story in which we can engage. It's her character with whom we empathize.

One reason she captivates is that Ms. Simpson gives her an intelligence she never allows Claire. Her observations are astute: "My employer has the American problem of guilt. But you should not be guilty to your children. It's for them that you're working."

This is a character with real drive and real ambition. Her desire to send money back to the Philippines to support her five children and her husband defines how she manages her life. She knows exactly how much she's made, how much she's sent home, how much she'll earn for the year. This is fascinating, and it's here where Ms. Simpson's novel is the strongest and the most intriguing.

Ms. Simpson -- whose breakout novel, "Anywhere But Here," celebrated the dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship -- is a sharp writer, a perfectionist with the kind of details that fully realize fictional characters. Her 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.

Novels of women and their domestic help might be the new subsection of chick lit. Recent successful novels exploring this theme include Thrity Umrigar's "The Space Between Us" or Kathryn Stockett's "The Help." But unlike these novelists, Ms. Simpson doesn't care to examine the relationship between the two women. And this feels like a missed opportunity, especially with Claire's good deed at the end of the novel.

The novel clarifies the vast difference between her two narrators. Lola is insightful, ambitious and determined. Claire is moody and whiny, a great potential candidate for a reality show. With that imbalance comes a half-realized novel.

Sharon Dilworth is a fiction writer and teaches English at Carnegie Mellon University.


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