The central, unavoidable dilemma of the relationship between working parents and the people who care for their offspring is that money is exchanged (usually in cash) in the hopes that a bond of trust, caring and even love will develop between the caregiver and the child, and at some point, this intense emotional connection will end with two weeks' notice.
Mona Simpson's My Hollywood--her first book since her 2000 novella Off Keck Road--is a carefully considered, vivid exploration of that relationship, told through the alternating perspectives of a mother and the immigrant nanny she employs. Claire, a classical composer who has just moved to Los Angeles with her sitcom-writer husband Paul, has ambitions that have overwhelmed any urge to stay home with her infant son William. At a bus stop, she meets Lola, a 52-year-old Filipina, and--going with her gut--hires her as a live-in nanny for $250 a week.
Claire is a sympathetic character but an anxious type. When mothering, she's distracted--always tapping out rhythms on her arm--but when composing, she is beset by guilt over not being with William. Her passionless marriage seems ill chosen, but her hiring instincts are dead on: Lola is warm, trustworthy and almost painfully dedicated. Lola sends money back to the Philippines to educate her own children, but when another couple offers to double her salary, she is too loyal to "Williamo" to take the offer. Instead, she suggests they hire her protégé, Lucy; when Williamo can bear to part with Lola, she'll take over Lucy's higher-paying job. That's the plan, anyway. The ultimate, heart-wrenching message is that even when it comes to child care, no one is really irreplaceable.
Lola tells her story in somewhat uncertain English, and there's a fractured, abstract rhythm to her thoughts that initially makes her chapters hard to digest. It seems a bit patronizing at first--surely she and Lucy would speak to each other in Tagalog rather than pidgin English--but as Simpson draws us into Lola's story, that sense fades. We're on the side of this silent observer, forgotten by her employers, who conduct their personal lives before her as they would "in front of a pet."
Simpson's prose is gentle but leaves a trail of savage insights, including how unlikely it is for a parent, child or nanny to walk away from this awkward triangle without bruises. This is a domestic novel and--let's avoid the demeaning but here--a highly political one. Simpson is not judgmental about the parents and nannies she presents, but it's clear she thinks America's child-care solutions aren't working. Every mother, working and otherwise, will see some of herself in Claire. "We drank nonfat lattes, ice blendeds, a dozen small consolations," she muses. "But for what, exactly, were mothers always being consoled?"