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Casebook
From the acclaimed and award-winning author: a beguiling new novel about an eavesdropping boy working to discover the obscure mysteries of his unraveling family. He uncovers instead what he least wants to know: the workings of his parents' private lives. And even then he can't stop snooping.

Miles Adler-Hart, helped by his friend Hector, spies and listens in on his separating parents. Both boys are in thrall to Miles's unsuspecting mother, Irene, who is "pretty for a mathematician." They rifle through her dresser drawers and strip-mine her computer diary, finding that all leads pull them straight into her bedroom, and into questions about a stranger from Washington, D.C., who weaves in and out of their lives. Their amateur detective work starts innocently but soon takes them to the far reaches of adult privacy as they acquire knowledge that will affect the family's well-being, prosperity, and sanity. Once burdened with this powerful information, the boys struggle to deal with the existence of evil, and proceed to concoct hilarious modes of revenge on their villains and eventually, salvation.



 
Reviews
 
Casebook
"Having won honors ranging from a Whiting Writer's Award to an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts, the beloved Simpson shows up here with a young protagonist named Miles Adler-Rich who's compelled by the recent separation of his parents to spy on them with the help of friend Hector. The boys are particularly intrigued by Miles's mother ("pretty for a mathematician"), rifling through her diary and dresser drawers and finding evidence that puts them on the trail of a mysterious stranger. Thereafter they uncover secrets that shake the family's foundations and receive their first real lesson in good and evil."
- Library Journal

"In this sensitively rendered bildungsroman, Simpson recalls authentic, detailed memories of childhood [A] clever, insightful, and at times hilarious story about family, friendship, and love in all its complex iterations."
- Library Journal

"Simpson's (My Hollywood) sixth novel portrays a Santa Monica, Calif., family through the eyes of the only son, Miles Adler-Hart, a habitual eavesdropper who watches his mother, Irene, with great intensity. From an early age, Miles senses the vulnerability of his mother, a recently divorced mathematician, and throughout his childhood and adolescence feels the need to look out for her. When Irene falls in love with Eli Lee, Miles is highly suspicious. He enlists his best friend, Hector, to help him look deep into Eli's background, going so far as to work with a private investigator. Simpson elevates this world of tree houses and walkie-talkies not only through Miles's intelligence—"‘Hope for happiness is happiness,'" he tells Hector—but through the startling revelations he uncovers. Simpson tastefully crafts her story in a world of privilege, with private school, show business jobs, and housekeepers all present, but never prevalent details. More remarkable is Simpson's knowledge of her characters, which is articulated through subtle detail: we are not surprised by the flea market blackboard in the kitchen, nor by the preachy quotation Irene chooses to write on it. Ultimately, this is a story about a son's love for his mother, and Simpson's portrayal of utter loyalty is infectious."
- Publishers Weekly


A child of divorce turns private eye in the latest well-observed study of domestic dysfunction from Simpson (My Hollywood, 2010, etc.).

In some ways, Simpson's sixth novel marks a return to her first, Anywhere But Here (1986), which also features a teenage narrator struggling to comprehend a parental split. But the new book is more high concept, framed as a detective story about discovering the deceptions that can swirl around relationships. The narrator, Miles, is a bright LA high schooler who's prone to precocious antics like a money-making scheme selling lunches out of his locker. He's also picked up a more questionable eavesdropping habit, listening in on his mathematician mother's phone conversations after her marriage collapses and she pursues a new relationship with Eli, whose intentions and background strike Miles as questionable. With his friend Hector, he processes his confusion both artistically (via a comic book they create together) and pragmatically, befriending a PI who helps them get to the bottom of Eli's background. The setup is ingenious on a couple of fronts. First, making the tale a mystery adds a dose of drama to what's otherwise a stock plot about upper-middle-class divorce. Second, Miles' snapping to the role of secret eavesdropper and researcher underscores how alienated he is from his mother's confusion and heartbreak. Simpson presents Miles' tale as slightly comic; this is a story of teenage misadventures, after all. But as the truth about Eli emerges and Miles gets wise to reality, she shifts into a more serious register. "Everyone had secrets, I understood, now that I did," Miles explains. "With that one revelation, the world multiplied." Simpson's attempts to add a metafictional touch via Hector's footnote comments feel half-finished, but overall her command of the story is rock-solid.

A clever twist on a shopworn theme by a top-shelf novelist.
- Kirkus

Simpson's latest ensnaring, witty, and perceptive novel of family life under pressure in Los Angeles mines the same terrain as her much-lauded last novel, the immigrant-nanny-focused My Hollywood (2010). Here she puts a clever spin on domestic surveillance as young Miles begins spying on his mother, Irene, a mathematician, just as fault lines begin to appear in her marriage to his father, a Hollywood lawyer. Wily Miles, the overweight older brother of twin sisters he professes to loathe yet watches over tenderly, sets up phone taps of increasing sophistication, opens e-mail, eavesdrops, and paws through drawers, aided and abetted by his friend Hector, who is highly suspicious, and rightfully so, of Eli, post-separation Irene's increasingly enigmatic and elusive lover. As they muddle through middle school and high school, Miles and Hector become an adolescent American variation on Holmes and Watson, with the help of a kind, handsome private eye, Ben Orion. They also embark on a crazy entrepreneurial scheme involving troublesome pets. Simpson's opening gambit is a "Note to Customer" from the publisher of Two Sleuths, the best-selling comic created by Miles and Hector, but she wisely uses this framing device lightly, allowing this exceptionally incisive, fine-tuned, and charming novel to unfold gracefully as she brings fresh understanding and keen humor to the complexities intrinsic to each stage of life and love.

HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Simpson is a great literary favorite, and this winning novel will be supported by a cross-country author tour and plenty of publicity. —Donna Seaman, Booklist

Casebook by Mona Simpson: The consistently excellent Simpson returns with what sounds like a riff on Harriet the Spy: the story of a boy investigating his parents' disintegrating marriage. The coming-of-age narrative is complicated here, though, by the disintegration of the possibility of privacy in the age of Facebook, or Snapchat, or whatever we're all on now. Am I the only one hoping that the "stranger from Washington D.C. who weaves in and out of their lives" is Anthony Weiner? (Garth)
- The Great 2014 Book Preview, The Millions,

Protagonist Miles's parents are separating. He and his close friend Hector begin snooping around their belongings, and eavesdropping on their conversations in what begins as innocent, childlike "detective work," but soon evolves into something more serious. ––30 Books You Need to Read in 2014, Huffington Post

In The Casebook, award-winner Simpson, author of five novels that expose fraying family ties, turns a child's view on a marriage falling apart. At nine, Miles snoops on his parents, hides under their bed, rummages in his mother's drawers, and eavesdrops on her conversations. Mostly he overhears things he doesn't understand. His mum is "pretty for a mathematician". His dad, a lawyer, makes people laugh. He senses their marriage is in trouble. "Then, it happened: the permanent thing." The parents separate, leaving him devastated, then getting used to it. His buddy Hector's parents divorce, and over the years the two become yellow-page detectives, tracking down Miles's mother's new boyfriend, a "con artist of love", making espionage a habit, replacing his mother's Xanax with Vitamin C out of worry at one point. Their story, framed as a prequel to an award-winning comic-book series they have co-authoured, has delightful comic moments, and a surprising and poignant twist at the end.
- 10 Best New Books to Read, Jane Ciabattari, BBC Culture

"Casebook" (Knopf), by Mona Simpson, out April 15th. In the opening scene of Simpson's new novel, Miles Adler-Hart is hiding under his parents' bed. He's trying to eavesdrop on his mother ("the Mims," he calls her), convinced that she is having vital conversations with the moms of the other kids in his fourth-grade class to decide how much TV he will be allowed to watch. Instead, he stumbles into the breakup of his parents' marriage. Their divorce and relationships with new partners are shown through the eyes of Miles, who snoops deep into his parents' adult lives, but has limited understanding of what he discovers there. There's warm humor and deep feeling in its portrayal of the vulnerability and messiness of family life.
- Page-Turner Blog Books to Look Out For, Andrea Denhoed, New Yorker

Mona Simpson In ‘Casebook,' Simpson tells the tale of a young boy who endeavors to find out the secrets behind his parents' failing marriage (Knopf). I've never had an exclusive relationship to a room where I write. I used to want one. In my 20s, I'd look up and see the windows in New York and think of the apartments left empty all day by their owners who went to work in offices. "I need an office!" I thought. I could have used one of those empty rooms. In my 30s, I wrote in the back house of a ramshackle Spanish Revival we rented across from the ocean in the Santa Monica Canyon. I wrote thousands of pages there, but in order to see another adult human being I had to steal out through the brambly side of the house, along the driveway down to the street. I was usually spotted by my child, who was still young and would cry for me. When I started writing "Casebook," I needed to be watched while I worked. I'd rented an office but I was recently divorced and traveling too much for a family illness. I thought that I could hold it together for a day's work if other people were around. I wouldn't let myself cry in public. I wrote the first draft on a table in the Santa Monica Public Library. Now I write at home. I revised the last 11 drafts, red-penciled the copy editing and marked the first-pass galleys at different places in the house; sitting on the floor next to the heating vent, on my bed, at the kitchen table, leaning back in my chair with my feet up on the desk. Writers collect stories of rituals: John Cheever putting on a jacket and tie to go down to the basement, where he kept a desk near the boiler room. Keats buttoning up his clean white shirt to write in, after work. Instead of a dedicated room, my best trigger is the actual habit of reading over the texts from the day before. Marking. Changing. Fussing. This ritual amounts to a habit of trust. Trust that I can make it better. That if I keep trying, I will come closer to something true.
- Writer's Room, The New York Times Style Magazine

With best bud Hector, Miles plays amateur spy in a touching tale of teens trying to make sense of their parents' marriages and divorces. But tapping telephones and intercepting notes just might lead to more than the boys can handle.
- New Book Picks, Good Housekeeping

"A new novel from Anywhere But Here writer Mona Simpson is big news. We're psyched for Casebook, the story of an unraveling family that asks: How much do snoops really want to find?"
- What We Love About April, Marie Claire

"Wait a minute. There's a new Lydia Davis collection out this month and Mona Simpson has a novel out full of unforgettable characters the likes of which only one of our best writers can create? April sure is shaping up to be one of 2014's most important months for literature."
- 10 Must-Read Books for April, Jason Diamond, flavorwire.com

"Mona Simpson has always written movingly about young characters, from the protagonists of her early stories Lawns and Approximations to Ann in her debut novel Anywhere But Here. That makes Casebook a return of sorts: narrated by a boy who begins spying on his parents, only to discover more about them, and the family, than he ever thought he would. And yet, Casebook is a departure also - looser, edgier, with a vivid conditionality. 'I was a snoop,' her narrator, Miles Adler-Rich, tells us, 'but a peculiar kind. I only discovered what I most didn't want to know.'"
- LA Times Spring Arts Preview
 
Excerpts
 
Casebook
I was a snoop, but a peculiar kind. I only discovered what I most didn’t want to know.
The first time it happened, I was nine. I’d snaked underneath my parents’ bed when the room was empty to rig up a walkie-talkie. Then they strolled in and flopped down. So I was stuck. Under their bed. Until they got up.
I’d wanted to eavesdrop on her, not them. She decided my life. Just then, the moms were debating weeknight television. I needed, I believed I absolutely needed to understand Survivor. You had to, to talk to people at school. The moms yakked about it for hours in serious voices. The only thing I liked that my mother approved of that year was chess. And every other kid, every single other kid in fourth grade, owned a Game Boy. I thought maybe Charlie’s mom could talk sense to her. She listened to Charlie’s mom.
On top of the bed, my dad was saying that he didn’t think of her that way anymore either. What way? And why either? I could hardly breathe. The box spring made a gauzy opening to gray dust towers, in globular, fantastic formations. The sound of dribbling somewhere came in through open windows. My dad stood and locked the door from inside, shoving a chair up under the knob.
Before, when he did that, I’d always been on the other side. Where I belonged. And it hurt not to move.
"Down," my mother said.
"Left." Which meant he was rubbing her back.
All my life, I’d been aware of him wanting something from her.
And of her going sideways in his spotlight, a deer at the sight of a human. The three of us, the originals, were together locked in a room.
My mom was nice enough looking, for a smart woman. "Pretty for a mathematician," I’d heard her once say about herself, with an air of apology. Small, with glasses, she was the kind of person you didn’t notice. I’d seen pictures, though, of her holding me as a baby. Then, her hair fell over her cheek and she’d been pretty. My dad was always handsome. Simon’s mom, a jealous type, said that my mother had the best husband, the best job, the best everything. I thought she had the best everything, too. We did. But Simon’s mom never said my mother had the best son.
The bed went quiet and it seemed then that both my parents were falling asleep. My dad napped weekends.
NOOO, I begged telepathically, my left leg pinned and needled. Plus I really had to pee.
But my mother, never one to let something go when she could pick it apart, asked if he was attracted to other people. He said he hadn’t ever been, but lately, for the first time, he felt aware of opportunities. He used that word.
"Like who?"
I bit the inside of my cheek. I knew my dad: he was about to blab and I couldn’t stop him. And sure enough, idiotically, he named a name. By second grade everyone I knew had understood never to name a name.
"Holland Emerson," he said. What kind of name was that? Was she Dutch?
"Oh," the Mims said. "You’ve always kind of liked her." "I guess so," he said, as if he hadn’t thought of it until she told him.
Then the mattress dipped, like a whale, to squash me, and I scooched over to the other side as the undulation rolled.
"I didn’t do anything, Reen!" She got up. Then I heard him follow her out of the room.
"I’m not going to do anything! You know me!" But he’d started it. He’d said opportunities. He’d named a name. I bellied out, skidded to the bathroom, missing the toilet by a blurt. A framed picture of them taken after he’d proposed hung on the wall; her holding the four- inch diamond ring from the party- supply shop. On the silvery photograph, he’d written I promise to always make you unhappy.
I’d grown up with his jokes.
By the time I sluffed to the kitchen he sat eating a bowl of Special K. He lifted the box.
"Want some?"
"Don’t fill up." She stood next to the wall phone. "We’re having the Audreys for dinner."
"Tonight?" he said.
"Can we cancel? I think I’m coming down with something."
"We canceled them twice already."
The doorbell rang. It was the dork guy who came to run whenever she called him. He worked for the National Science Foundation and liked to run and talk about pattern formation.
 
About
 
My Hollywood
From the acclaimed and award-winning author: a beguiling new novel about an eavesdropping boy working to discover the obscure mysteries of his unraveling family. He uncovers instead what he least wants to know: the workings of his parents' private lives. And even then he can't stop snooping.

Miles Adler-Hart, helped by his friend Hector, spies and listens in on his separating parents. Both boys are in thrall to Miles's unsuspecting mother, Irene, who is "pretty for a mathematician." They rifle through her dresser drawers and strip-mine her computer diary, finding that all leads pull them straight into her bedroom, and into questions about a stranger from Washington, D.C., who weaves in and out of their lives. Their amateur detective work starts innocently but soon takes them to the far reaches of adult privacy as they acquire knowledge that will affect the family's well-being, prosperity, and sanity. Once burdened with this powerful information, the boys struggle to deal with the existence of evil, and proceed to concoct hilarious modes of revenge on their villains and eventually, salvation.
 
Reviews
 
My Hollywood
It is Lola, however, who holds center stage, emerging as an indelible character — as keenly observed as the mother-and-daughter pair in “Anywhere but Here,” and as much an avatar, as they were, of the contingencies and compromises of the American Dream.
Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

[Simpson] takes us inside what once was called the heart-chamber of the world. The walls of the chamber are touched by beauty, but it echoes with the plangent sounds of love lost, love damaged, love unrequited; and with the sadness of those sighs are the music of a love unfound.
The Times Literary Supplement (London)

In Mona Simpson’s new novel about a modern marriage and its discontents, the saga of its Filipina domestic sketches a new variation on the American dream…that reality runs through this intimate, ironic tale, in which Lola’s nanny allies, and adversaries, all of differing nationalities, become a brilliant Greek chorus reflecting and refracting Lola and Claire’s interdependence and their divide.
Lisa Shea, Elle

“The success of this absorbing novel rests on Simpson's ability to make that well-worn marital argument just as uncomfortable and perplexing as it was when you were having it with your own spouse…. Through Lola and her friends, we're introduced to a tight network of immigrant child-care workers, women charged with the ultimate responsibilities but subjected to casual humiliations, plied with lavish compliments and stung by racist assumptions, exhorted to stay except when they're being threatened with deportation. They're an agile, wary group, these nannies, sometimes servants, sometimes teachers, stand-in mothers and pinch-hitting maids.It's a poignant vision of the upstairs-downstairs structure that persists in our officially classless society. Some of the best chapters here, in Lola's voice, stand alone as powerful short stories … “My Hollywood" could easily be "Our Country."
Ron Charles, Washington Post

Novel by novel, Simpson takes tresh and disquieting approaches to fractured families. Her fifth book is a duet between Claire, a high-strung composer who has left New York for Hollywood to support her husband’s television ambitions, and Lola, a Filipina in her fifties who becomes their nanny, caring with sensitivity and love for their precocious, moody son. Claire is ambivalent about motherhood. Lola is putting her children through college while continuing to support their household in the Philippines, where she is of the same class as the Hollywood women who hire her to care for their children. Claire’s deepening loneliness as her workaholic husband becomes a stranger and her artistic struggle in a place she finds arid and alien are compelling, but compassionate, wise, and self-sacrificing Lola, with her mellifluous voice and wonderfully inventive English, rules. In her arresting portrayals of Lola and her nanny and housekeeper friends, Simpson explores a facet of American society rarely depicted with such insight and appreciation. As Lola and Claire tell their intertwined stories, Simpson subtly but powerfully traces the persistence of sexism and prejudice, the fear and injustice inherent in the predicaments of immigrants, and the complexity and essentiality of all domestic relationships.
- Donna Seaman, Booklist

Heart –wrenching…Simpson’s prose is gentle but leaves a savage trail of 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 a highly political one.
Mary Pols, TIME

In her gradually unfolding, finely tuned narrative, Simpson shows how, for many women, the nanny-mom relationship grows to be more intimate than marriage...Jane Ciabattari, NPRIt takes a very subtle, sophisticated and confident writer to make our most common problems come off as unique on the page as they feel at 3 in the morning. If anyone can do it, Mona Simpson, author of "Anywhere but Here," "The Lost Father," "A Regular Guy" and "Off Keck Road," can. And does. But there's more.Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles TimesIn her first novel since Off Keck Road (2000), Simpson tells a blistering story of fractured love and flailing parents. Claire, a new mother and composer, has moved to Santa Monica, Calif., so that her husband Paul can follow his dreams of becoming a TV comedy writer. When Paul’s job requires late nights, Claire, already overwhelmed with balancing motherhood and career, hires Lola, a middle-aged Filipina, to help with her son, Williamo, and soon Lola’s trying to plug holes in Claire and Paul’s slowly sinking family ship. Claire and Lola narrate in alternation chapters; fragile and sometimes fierce Claire deploys a biting wit that shreds the pretensions that permeate her social life and her marriage, while Lola is more open-hearted and eager to help people, though she also draws laughs with her observations about wealthy families. The story both satirizes and earnestly assesses the failings of upper-middle-class L.A., and Simpson’s taut prose allows her to drill into the heart of relationships, often times with a single biting sentence. Funny, smart, and filled with razor sharp observations about life and parenthood, Simpson’s latest is well worth the wait.
Publisher's Weekly Review

This is classic Simpson . . . she is direct, unsentimental, an observer coolly marking down the customs of the domestic world . . . the household dynamics, in which the most serious and potent truths are told.
David Ulin, O Magazine

My Hollywood explores two different Hollywoods. There’s the one inhabited by Claire, a middling composer of classical music whose career orbit has been wobbled by a new planet—the birth of her son—and challenged by her husband’s all-consuming efforts to break into and then maintain a career as a television writer. And there’s the real focus of the book, the Hollywood inhabited by the nanny Claire has hired, Lola, an insightful Filipina who immigrated to raise money to educate her children back home. In some ways it is a familiar story. But Simpson uses these identifiable character types to examine the nature of relations, and love, and modern urban families, as children bond with immigrant hired help as readily as with their biological parents.
Scott Martelle, Publishers Weekly

The two women narrate alternating chapters, and the contrast in their voices is a double-Dutch game of masterful writing: Claire, privileged and damaged, floats along in a daze of unfulfillment, while the ever-practical Lola observes the L.A. milieu with a realist’s eye in imperfect yet oddly poetic English . . . It’s the tender, persevering Lola who is the book’s true emotional pulse . . . A character as rich as Lola won’t easily fade from anyone’s mind.
Missy Schwartz, Entertainment Weekly

Simpson’s novel shows the intricacies and inequities of domestic politics. ...“My Hollywood” is a smart, topical, absorbing novel that explores the macro economy, the micro economy and the world of work, both inside and outside the home. Mona Simpson writes adroitly about domestic matters, and she knows the domestic matters.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie, Kansas City Star

New mother Claire, a cellist and classical composer, is married to a workaholic TV writer and stranded in a cultural desert. Uncertain of her parenting skills and desperate for creative time, she hires a Filipina nanny, Lola. Writing in both women’s voices, Simpson (Anywhere But Here) deploys a sharp eye and mordant wit to show us the backstairs view of a Hollywood we’ve never seen.
Roxana Robinson, More Magazine
 
Excerpts
 
My Hollywood
I take Williamo to the post office, seal the envelope, and send my money home. Four hundred fifty this week. A ticker tape of dollars runs now all the time in my head. Last year, I totaled more than twenty thousand - in pesos, three times what Bong Bong earns, and he is executive Hallmark. This year it will be more because my weekend job. Besides what I send, I give myself allowance of five dollars for daily spending. Twenty five go to my private savings, so when I return home there will be some they did not know. Also, I need my account here for shoes or treats for Williamo or if one of the babysitters gets married. When you are working seven days, you need some your own money. And, I tell Williamo, Every day, Lola requires her coffee. Is twenty-five thousand ninety dollars enough to support a coffee habit on Montana Avenue? Lola is not a yuppie. I am here to pay tuitions and medicine; in our country, that goes ten years.
When we enter the house, the mother of Claire and her friend Tom are there. Tom says, "Two years ago, no one paid more than fifty cents for a cup of coffee! Now they’re all spending five dollars a day! That’s a five hundred percent increase." The mother of Claire goes every day to the coffee shop. But Tom, he will not attend.
"But-ah, I get the plain . Only one fifty. Plus they give the sugar we use to make the cinnamon toast." I lift a handful of natural-sugar packs from my pocket.
"Coffee costs them cents, Lola! Cents!"
Does he think I am spending the money of Claire and Paul? Compared with other parents here my employers they are not rich, but they are still rich to me. You have to pay what it costs where you live to join the club of life. Anyway, my weekend employer makes my coffee for me. I leave on the counter the receipt for tapioca and the change.
Walking to my weekend house, I hear my heart. Tops of planted grains tick my hands. Sprinklers spray a chain on my wrist. From a long time ago, I remember the strangeness that comes with hope. Love, the way I have known it - it is also dread. I move slower when I see the house. My happiest moments were before. When I first married Bong Bong, I felt afraid he would die. Then, after my children, I worried they would die. I still had long hair, like my daughters now. And every night, Bong Bong worked on my neck. "Time to work on your neck," he said. He made it a project, not a favor from him to me. He likes to turn his gifts invisible. Credit, the way children want, it would embarrass him. I lay down on the hard bed. He held my head on his knees. All those years, he never missed one night. He would start by extracting the sticks that kept up my hair. I felt the tug and loosening.
What my weekend employers want that they do not have is me. I try to keep this light in the air. When I sit on the floor playing with Bing, Helen brings me a pale green mug, steaming, the taste of something sweet and burnt.
"Drink it now, Lola. Tonight, when Jeff gets home, we’re taking you out."
The doorbell rings. Estelle, the mother of Helen, arrives to babysit. Why?
"But I am the babysitter," I say. "I will be the one to stay home."
"We want to take you."
"Three is a crowd," I say.
Helen tries to push me into the front, but I climb next to the car seat.
The restaurant it is all couples. Small candles on the tables and no children; I am not comfortable wearing my secondhand T-shirt that says HARD ROCK CAFÉ. Here, I never attend restaurants in the night. It is all going very slow.
I am looking around that no one will see us.
"Her sea bass is very good," Helen says. "And people say she does a great steak."
Employers and employees do not sit together at restaurants. I never once took my helper out to eat. She would have been embarrassed in a Manila restaurant. With the other babysitters I am the one to talk. But here, it moves too slow.
"How are your children?" Helen asks, while Jeff finally orders his food.
I say all I want is soup. I am sounding like Vicky, but he tells me he is going to order me a steak, because I never get meat at their house. "Fine," I say. "My kids they are good."
They tell me stories about Vicky. It is true, Vicky is not a good babysitter. I would never hire her for my kids. Maybe at this one thing, I am best.
"She still doesn't talk to us," Helen says. "I don’t think she ever really liked us."
"At the playclub Vicky is dal-dal." Actually, she is tomboy, what they call lesbian. She likes the mother of Bing. It is the dad she complains. "No, Vicky likes you," I say. At last, our food arrives and I keep my hands on my lap. The steak is many pounds. This is enough for the whole family of Lola. Then we eat, quiet. The guy, he is serious, deboning his fish. He finally puts down his knife. “Lola,” he says. “We’re going to fire Vicky.”
This is so fast, skidding, too soon something will be over. “But-ah, Vicky is nice” is all I can think to say. I have heard about proposals like this: professional parents go to the park to find a nanny and offer her double her salary. Maybe it is true for love also, what you see in the movies. I never believed those things before because they did not happen to me. My grandmother once saw the Virgin Mary. The Virgin sat down, moving her robe to smooth it out, when my grandmother took her lunch at the school. The robe was blue cotton, not velvet, a brighter blue than she had always pictured it, my grandmother said.
I tell my daughters, Do not trust roses; they will stink one week in the jar. Maybe I have been wrong!
But Vicky was good for me, I never minded Vicky. They like me better and that will never change. With someone new, who knows?
“Helen tells me they’re paying you fifty-five dollars.” He pauses, napkining his mouth.
They do not know my raise. I am now sixty-two fifty.
“I just signed contracts for two projects. We could start you at one hundred.”
One hundred dollars a day! Like Lita. Maybe the things I heard before – even the man in the Castle marrying the baby nurse – maybe they all come true. It feels like The End. Darkness eats in from the edges. I think of the carmelly coffee, fine silt at the bottom.
“But I will have to think,” I say.
They look at each other. It seems they were expecting me to jump.
“Tell us, Lola, if there’s anything we can do. Because we really want to have you.”
He leans over. “Would a hundred and ten make a difference?”
I say no to dessert. Outside the restaurant the sky is dark blue. They tell me I can take the night off.
“You could catch a movie.” He looks at his watch. “It’s only eight-thirty.”
Helen touches my wrist. “Either way, still friends?”
I am carrying a small heavy bag – my steak. “More than friends. You are my weekend employers.”
They laugh. For them that is a joke. For me it is not funny. If I say no, what if the person they get wants seven days? One hundred ten dollars a day! The last few minutes in the restaurant, they upped me fifty a week! More than my year raise from Claire and him. After six months, Claire raised me five dollars a day and again when he turned two, seven-fifty. I walk around the dark neighborhood, past houses where I know children, entering a room of jasmine and a smell of pepper. After one more year, Williamo he will start in the school.
I always work for free the day of his birthday and the one before. For their wedding anniversary, I give a weekend. I throw in the Friday night. And they celebrate the anniversary of my coming by raising me. So when Williamo turned two, that is when I became .50. Some of my friends get more, but their employers, they are rich. Also, if Claire asks me to work late, she will pay extra. Many here pay one price for live-in. No matter what you have to do. I always say to them, “As long as I am needed.” But 0 every day! Five days or seven. Up to me. That is 0 a week instead of 2.50. Per year, an extra ,950. My God. I think I have to take that. Plus in that house, I will have my coffee made every day. That is 6 saved. Helen is young. They will want more kids. Maybe two more. This is a good job for a long time. I walk all the way to the ocean to say good morning to the Philippines.
 
About
 
Off Keck Road
In Green Bay, Wisconsin-here vividly realized and imagined-Bea Maxwell comes of age in the fifties, as Off Keck Road follows her extended circle along the arc of their lives, through their frustrations an occasional successes, well toward old age.

A story of family and friends, of change and many generations, it gathers itself around this remarkable woman, who discovers much about the world from her experience in the one place she has always belonged. With her first three books Mona Simpson has created a memorable cast of searchers who leave home in order to reinvent themselves, to find the missing parent or dream. But in this superb new novella, Simpson reveals the precise costs and rewards of staying—out of affinity and obligation, out of chance, circumstance, and choice.

Mesmerizing, compact, and intense, Off Keck Road reflects fully half a century of American life-and displays a writer at the maturity of her accomplishment.
 
Reviews
 
Off Keck Road
“Off Keck Road should not be read in public places, against the certainty of tears. Set in Green Bay, Wisconsin, from the 1950s to the late 1980s, written with a rare purity of style, this story of two women of different generations and classes, growing up and old, is continually moving in a wry, Chekhovian way. The novel is especially artful in its manipulation of setting to register the foreclosures of time and possibility.”
Jack Beatty, The Atlantic Monthly

“Perhaps it’s sacrilegious to compare a contemporary novelist to a Great Master, but Mona Simpson’s prose succeeds in creating that same transcendent, uncanny quality. Her medium is common, even banal: intimate family dramas done in a realistic style. Dozens of other contemporary writers cover the same ground, yet Simpson’s works go into a realm that is almost ineffable. How does she know what we are thinking when we turn out the lights?
[…] Simpson has said that instead of the chapter or the paragraph, her vehicle is the line, ad her facility with it is much in evidence here.
[…] The writer who most comes to mind here is Richard Ford. He and Simpson are extraordinary sculptors of character, and in this book she approaches his level of darkness, where characters look unflinchingly at their own lives and have to force themselves to forget what they see in order to keep going.”
Emily Wise Miller, SF Chronicle

“Off Keck Road showcases the the gifts of emotional sympathy and psychological observation that Ms. Simpson used to such enormous effect in Anywhere But Here and The Lost Father.
[…] In looking at how this world has shaped two women’s lives, Off Keck Road re-examines the dichotomy that has animated Ms. Simpson’s work to date, namely the pull between rootlessness and freedom, domesticity and independence. […] in laying out a five-decade-long portrait of a small town and its residents, ‘Keck Road’ leaves us with a melancholy sense of time and flux and loss.”
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Emotional grandeur, rendered in the vernacular, has been Mona Simpson’s forte.
[…] And yet, if one sets aside the false equation that more pages equal greater seriousness, something delicate and open-ended emerges here that constitutes a subtle challenge to the centrality of blood ties in Simpson’s other, highly regarded novels. Off Keck Road marks the place where origin leaves off and improvisation begins”
Stacey D’Erasmo, The New York Times

“Off Keck Road is a beautifully orchestrated work of miniaturist effects. In its portrayal of unfulfilled lives slowly slipping away – abundant only in their melancholy and regret – it calls to mind the lonely, thwarted heroines of Anita Brookner. In its lean, unfussy prose and subtle accumulation of the barest of details, it bears the mark of Raymond Carver. [….]Off Keck Road is Simpson’s best book since her first. With its astute rendering of provincial life, its pitch-perfect capture of midwestern laconicism, its sincere compassion for ordinary people, this little volume adds up to a large fictional achievement.”
Dan Cryer, Newsday

“[…] Simpson here examines the cost of acquiescence, of missed opportunities. Somehow, despite the circumscribed territory she has allotted herself, Off Keck Road feels vast in scope, conjuring the sweep of history and countless miles of road not taken. The result is mournful, sly, philosophical and bitterly funny—often all at one, as when a character describes the act of knitting as sounding ‘like little bones snapping’ (just let that one sink in for a minute) or when Simpson discloses Bea’s habit of imagining her free-spirited pal, June, having sex with men. ‘That was another way Bea used their friendship, all those years, without June ever knowing.’ With lines like that, Off Keck Road is as soft-spoken a literary tour de force as one can ever hope to read.”
Aaron Gell, W Magazine

“When Bea Maxwell returns to her small home town, in 1964, after college and a stint at a big-city ad agency, she wants to believe that this is not the end of her story—that the chapter including ‘the startling redemption’ is still to come. But what follows is less a story than a catalogue of fragile moments that never crystallize into actual events. Bea wrestles with the propriety of a woman telephoning a man, flirts awkwardly with a priest, and deflects a sexual advance from her married boss, to her regret. It’s not easy to write a novel in which the central tragedy is that nothing happens, but the author uses the cumulative power of small details to convince us that Bea’s stalled life is a life worth knowing.”
“Briefly Noted,” The New Yorker

“Novelist Percy Walker compared Anywhere But Here (1987), Mona Simpson’s highly acclaimed, best-selling debut novel about a mother and daughter hitting the road, to Huckleberry Finn. Fair enough; Off Keck Road (Alfred A. Knopf), then, might be her Mrs. Bridge—a quietly tragic study of the hovering but never quite realized possibilities of a passive, provincial woman’s life. It’s also a fascinating and deeply thoughtful counterpoint to the recent crop of single-gal-on-the-loose chick-lit offerings.
[…] Bea Maxwell, mid-twentieth century, falls between the two. She wastes her life dreaming like Gustave Flaubert’s character, but like Helen Fielding’s, she has the option of self-willed change—change that, in the end, her friend June is able to make, while she herself is not. Bea is blessed with more choices than Emma Bovary, tormented by fewer than Bridget Jones; her tragedy is neither acute nor fatal—just chronic, not unlike that of her most direct novelistic ancestor, India Bridge.”
Marisa Bowe, Vogue

“The book is, perhaps, a tribute to the unsung souls who opt not to travel far and wide and instead stay behind in their small hometowns, where life continues one day to the next largely unchanged. It is also, in a much more subtle manner, a story about how two lives, so different, can be so similar.”–
Lori Tobias, Rocky Mountain News

“In her latest work of fiction, the accomplished Mona Simpson chooses time over length, and the results are moving. Off Keck Road places her squarely in the tradition of such masters of the material of the bounded life of the Middle West as Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson.
[…] Maturation. Aging. There’s that time factor that short fiction usually affords us little of. But here, for all of its breadth and the sharp sense of detail that Simpson gives us of Middle American life, there is an urgency to the narrative rhythm that carries us all too swiftly through to Bea’s middle age. Everyone she knows is ‘hankering after a life that looked like a picture.’ In other words, they want permanence. None, of course, can have it, and that poignant sense of closure that looms ever so much nearer on the horizon than any of the characters figured when they started out gives this short work a depth of feeling many longer novels lack.
[…] If I were a young woman in my mid-20s, I would buy Off Keck Road for myself and my female friends to weep over, and give copies of Shopgirl to any boys or boy-men who came near.”
Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune

In fewer than 200 pages, Green Bay native Mona Simpson has created a rich, Chekhovian world of longing and loneliness, of missed opportunities and small-town dramas.

[…] They are all, in their own ways, looking for love, for validation, for adventure. And their lives are shot through with near-misses and might-have-beens, which Simpson renders in spare but evocative prose.
[…] There is nary a wasted scene or false note in this book. Simpson has an eye for the telling detail, an ear finely tuned to Wisconsin vowels and a wit sly enough to describe one over-confident character his way: ‘She iddn’t seem to know – the way other women here did – that being pretty had an end date, like milk.’
Without patronizing either her characters or their setting, the author captures the quotidian trade-offs of small-town life: the ideal of marriage and family vs. the messy reality; comforting familiarity vs. claustrophobic intimacy; capitalist notions of progress vs. vanishing landmarks.

[…] It is the character of Bea that will strike universal chords.
[…] She is an American version of one of those Anita Brookner heroines – someone who holds things together for countless others at great cost to herself. ‘She was stylish,’ Simpson writes, ‘in a way that made some people in town more suspicious than impressed, and others merely hopeful for her. ‘Well, but she keeps herself up,’ they said.’”
Whitney Gould, Journal Sentinel

“A gleam infuses Mona Simpson’s lovely, rueful and uncharacteristically compact new effort, which spans almost five decades in the lives of two memorable women.
[…] In these pages, Green Baby comes across as timeless and familiar, an Everyplace in which the civic tempo reassuringly thrums with petty biases and gossip about imploding marriages and how many of the Davis girls lost their virginity to that blond boy from the dairy farm. It is the sort of town in which nothing – and everything – happens, where the big news is not the Packers’ latest victory but the drive-in movie’s Friday night fish fry and the morning’s big surprise: the bottle of spiked homemaker eggnog a friend has left by your back door in the snow.
[…] By layering each woman’s story through short, understated scenes, Simpson nearly manages to telescope time: friendship, sex, failure, misunderstanding, squandered chances and death all occur here without much ceremony or elaboration.
[…] A persistent image throughout is of Bea, needles snapping, knitting scarves and capes for young polio victims, sweaters for herself, snoods for her mother, ‘new home’ throws for the young couples to whom she sells houses. ‘Off Keck Road’ may lack the impressive heft and scope of Simpson’s first two novels, but it reiterates her grasp of the huge, tangled skein of the human experience and her skill at weaving into her characters and readers alike a reverence for life’s great cravings: to be useful and to be loved.”
Margaria Fichtner, The Buffalo News
 
Excerpts
 
Off Keck Road
In 1967 Shelley’s mother explained the whole system of female sins. She illustrated them on Shelley’s little brother’s blackboard, just as she had with the planets and the different branches of our government. That had been hard to listen to. Shelley’s attention had drifted, much like it did at school.
Sitting on their lap was a form of petting, egging them on. Letting them touch you or put their tongues in different places, your ears or arms, say, was also dangerous.
Kimmie was invited to a party at a house way out in the boonies, where there were going to be boys.
Their mother got a ragged laugh when she said, “Oh, they’ll try, all right.”
“Why don’t you talk to them two?” Kim asked, nodding toward the room where Butch and Tim shared bunk beds. “Tell them the sins.”
“They’re boys.” Her mother shrugged. “Plus they know.”
Shelley had been in the room all the time, sitting on her bed holding her hands in her lap like two big leather mitts.
She was already taller than both of them, and strong. Recently, she’d lifted a nine-foot hickory limb felled by lightning.
“What about her?” Kim pointed.
Their mother’s mouth pulled down. Maybe she was thinking of it for the first time. “Don’t you let anyone fool with you, Shelley,” she said quietly, but stern.
“Some boy may try, but it’ll only be to laugh at you for it later.”
Shelley saw herself considered with a new consternation—a tooth mismatched with a lower tooth, making her mother’s whole face look broken.
Shelley knew she wasn’t pretty. Not from looking in the mirror; she stared at her reflection in the bathroom medicine chest door many minutes of those days, but—to herself—she looked just about like everybody else. No, she understood from how boys at school were with her and her sister. Here at home, on Keck Road, it was easier. But in school, Shelley had to do more to get their attention. She had to rush hard to be in the right place; she had to say something; she could not let up. Kimmie, she just got it all coming from different directions. Kimmie was the center of a star.
But her mother was still looking at Shelley, worried now.
So there was sex for the pretty and the unpretty, too. You weren’t entirely spared either way.
Shelley could tell it would be different for her than for Kimmie or for June across the street and her daughter, Peggy, whose clothes were clean and sugary as molded Easter eggs with paper scenery inside them. With them, she thought, it would be quaint like a valentine. Precise touches, trembling, hummingbirds eating from flowers.
For Shelley, though, it would be something else, a way of catching her, getting her down to hurt her, dust in her mouth and dry heat, a rubbing.
She had seen it with animals. Once it was started, they couldn’t stop. Even if people shouted, even if everyone was looking.
She’d seen dogs like that in George’s yard, the one on the bottom looking out at you with big eyes when you clapped or called, hanging helpless because it needed that hit hit hit.
It was hard for Shelley to be around people her own age. Those occasions made her excited and sad, sometimes alternating, sometimes all at once.
Most of the time, she kept quiet in school and on the playground. But when she said something, it could come out wrong—a rectangular bar that stayed in the air and made people look at her acutely. That was her experience: people not looking at her at all and then full on, suddenly sharp, as if she was in danger.
It was a little better out Keck Road in her old clothes. The kids ran together down to the railroad tracks. Sometimes they shot skeets. Shelley was a straight shot, but she never got her own gun, like her brothers. And later on, different as she was, she sided, the way the other girls and women did, with the birds, that they should have a finished life, complete, just like a person, dying when they were already old, for them, in their years. Let the birds be, she said.
On that dead-end street, what the children spoke of, fought over, taunted one another with all the time was money. Funny to think of on a road with eight houses, none of them worth much, off the highway running east-west, almost out of town. The first house as you turned in was the Keck house, a small box of cream color. Then there were empty wooded lots until Dave Janson, who lived with his fat wife and two boys. At the end was the biggest yard, first cleared by Phil Umberhum, who had worked for years as a guard in the tower of the penitentiary. Now his widow lived there alone.
Once, at a picnic, his grandson Petey brought a jar of olives. People talked about those olives for years. That kind of money was what made George’s family different.
The kids climbed over creeks on rocks and cement drainpipes; they built forts in trees—and all these things Shelley could do. She knew to just be quiet and wait for them to notice the work she’d done. Her grandmother had told her a long time ago, when she was a kid and came running inside because the neighbor children and her brothers and sister, too, were playing Polio and wanted to make her be it.
“Don’t let ‘em see that it bothers you. Go right back and say, ‘Okay, I’m it.’ Say that like you don’t give a hoot. If they see they can get you riled up, they’ll just keep piling on more.” So for years she’d played Polio. She was it.
 
About
 
A Regular Guy
Tom Owens dropped out of college to invent, right in his parents' basement, a new kind of business. It was no time to suffer any distractions, much less to legitimize the family that he, in fact, had already started on his own. So he stayed on in the sleepy, Edenic valley town of his youth. It was here that Owens became famously successful (his charisma and peerless business acumen also creating a seductive, if aimless, political person), when a raggedy grade-schooler turned up smack in the middle of his hectic life, claiming to be his daughter. Born in an Oregon commune, Jane had led an itinerant life with her mother, Mary, and only a vague notion of her father-a rich man, she was told. Now, years later, she finds herself becoming another of his complex relationships. There's the dependent yet unsettled Mary, with whom he eventually shares custody. And Olivia, his beautiful long-standing girlfriend, not to mention her rivals for his fleeting affection. There's Noah Kaskie, his best friend and intellectual alter ego, who craves what Owens takes for granted, ignores, sometimes flees. And, finally, the company that made his reputation is now subject to the very market forces Owen had exploited and refined.

How Jane helps transform this odd constellation into a strangely cohesive family, and how her father eventually discovers his true self, is revealed in this ambitious, often comic account of the pursuit, rewards and cost of greatness. More powerfully than ever before, Mona Simpson has uncovered the nature of longing and belonging, of birthright and the human heart, with what The New York Times has called her "dazzling literary gift and uncommon wisdom."
 
Reviews
 
A Regular Guy
“Simpson’s prose brings to mind a lot of the unsentimental urban clutter of Anne Tyler, yet her sentences have a glassy compactness, her jokes are frequent and smart and her truths memorably original and new. […] By the end, I was overwhelmed by such a dense-knit, psychologically ambitious book. It is a novel where ideas fray and leak daringly into each other and the mess of humanity creeps up slowly and dangerously. It finally persuades you that doubt, hesitation and compromise can also be necessary and beautiful. And its gentle climax – for which you must wait 300-odd pages – jolts the heart.”
– Julie Myerson, Independent on Sunday

“Her books may be inspired by similar emotional preoccupations, but her imagination works strictly from scratch. For A Regular Guy, she has created a voice, a perspective and a style that are entirely fresh and that give her prodigious talents a challenging new playing field. […] What a pleasure it is to see a successful novelist take a huge chance and fly high with it.”
– Laura Shapiro, Newsweek

“A wonderful story of two generations of Americans, the hippies of the Sixties, ‘when the world cracked open,’ and the children who are now struggling to make sense of their parents’ fragmented lives. It’s a Beats revisited, never more so than when Jane, born in a hippy commune and brought up by a spaced-out mother, drives a truck across country with the intention of finding her father. Tom Owens, now an eccentric tycoon who is running for Governor, takes his daughter straight to Paris for a haircut. Packed with strong emotions, complex characters, clear-sighted comment without any bitterness, this is a novel to be savoured.”
– Judy Cooke, The Mail on Sunday

“Simpson’s most powerful and moving writing is reserved for the fragile, makeshift alliances that sustain her characters, though she turns her deadly irony even on these.”
– Margaret Walters, The Sunday Times

“Ms. Simpson’s newest novel and her best so far, A Regular Guy, […] involves a young woman damaged by the itinerant, feckless adults who have failed to care for her, and the girl’s sense of complicity in the adult crimes going on around her.”
– Vince Passaro, The New York Observer

“Ultimately it is Simpson’s delicate grasp of family planning and misplanning, of legitimate versus illegitimate parenting and the machinations of creativity and selling-out that make this rich and winding story so mesmerizing.”
– Publisher’s Weekly

“It is no secret that families, even imagined ones, are not what they used to be. And in her luminous and most brilliantly realized novel to date, Mona Simpson, one of our most gifted chroniclers of modern family bonds, has finally proven Tolstoy’s axiom wrong for this age: Not all happy families are alike and not every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Instead, throughout the delicate and vast A Regular Guy, Simpson gives us a bittersweet portrait of the new American family – a complex constellation of drifters, dreamers, distant relatives and lost parents all of whose lives swirl around one child. In the process, she beautifully illuminates an updated turn on Tolstoy’s truth: It is the happy family that is unique in its contentment and the unhappy one whose unhappy ways are achingly familiar, even universally recognizable, to an entire generation just now on the cusp of adulthood.

The defining element of Simpson’s previous works, the missing and longed for family, is merely the starting point for A Regular Guy. And in casting a wider net, Simpson offers not only glimpses of one particular and specific struggle for familial identity, but also the universality that this search has come to signify for a generation often raised in fractured, divorced, nomadic and otherwise unsettled conditions.”
– Liesel Litzenburger, The Detroit News/Free Press

“Mona Simpson has a remarkable gift for depicting interior urgency. Whether ordinary or eccentric, her characters have something at stake. Neither overly tender nor patently ironic about their lives, they inhabit those lives with stubborn intent, without apology, which makes them all the more genuine and exasperating.

[…] Owens is by no means a cold, distant man in a gray suit. He’s in love with the idea of love, a dreamer with unshakable faith in himself who can’t accept the banal or disingenuous: he’s a strict vegetarian who doesn’t believe in sending Jane to school until the schools improve both their methods and their menus, even if he has to launch his own campaign. And he is not loved unconditionally; his immense good fortune ignites resentment in those who benefit most from it. It is finally Owens’ transformation—born of failure—and Jane’s more gradual hold on who she is and what she hopes for, that bring their beautifully crafted story full circle.”
– Debroah Noyes, Miami Herald
 
Excerpts
 
A Regular Guy
The Driving Child

Jane was not a sensitive child, she was not. She was mainly this—eating with her fingers, slowly, after thirty hours of dizzy hunger, without regular days or school. This was the way she knew happiness, her foot on the bench, the other heel kicking metal, the bite of wet gold-brown meat against the cold.
Mary’s own childhood had been all rules: napkins at table, a dessert served on flowered china, with her glass of milk. She’d wanted anything but the sameness of that house, though now when her mother was gone she missed it.
A highway-wind slipped in her sleeves and touched her ribs, shivering her. They both wore old soft clothes. “Honey, I’m going to send you to your dad,” she said. “I’d take you myself, but I can’t. I just don’t think I can.”
Her daughter knew when not to say anything. But she pulled her knee closer, softening a scab with her tongue. “I don’t even know him,” she finally said.
A train horn started too far away to see. Her mother’s round face looked out into distance. “You met him that once.”
“Was at night. I don’t remember.”
“He’s got a house and all now. And a lotta lotta money. He’s an important man down there. He might even be governor someday. Gov-ernor. Wouldn’t you like to be the governor’s daughter?”
Jane tried to keep her top lip straight. “No.”
“Yes you would. Later, you would.” Mary sighed. She unclasped her purse and gave Jane final money for two swirled ice cream sundaes with nuts. “I’m going to teach you how to drive.” The only car they had was a truck and it was old.
Teaching Jane to drive took a long time. She stopped going to school. As the fall progressed, they absorbed themselves in the nesting of the truck. Mary fitted pillows to the seat, sewing telephone books in between padding and basting on a slipcover, so Jane sat fifteen inches above the cracked vinyl. They had to strap wood blocks to the brake and gas and clutch pedals, so Jane’s feet could reach. But the blocks slid and they couldn’t trust the straps and they finally borrowed a drill from the Shell station and attached the wood with deep barnum screws. Never once did Mary call Mack, although his long letters arrived every day, small forlorn script in blue ink on yellow lined paper.
“They’re probably having some bad times,” Mary said, “but little contentments too, I suppose.” The two of them were silent, reverent to the idea of marriage, the boys, Mack and the fat displeased wife sitting down to supper around one table. They perched high in the truck eating Arby’s, down the block from his house, where a strangled tricycle waited in the driveway.
“He says she’s on a diet.” Mary read from the letter. Mack used to tell them stories about his wife’s weight. When I married her she was a wisp of a thing, he’d say softly.
“Remember the time she ate the big zucchini?” Jane said. Once, he’d made a week’s worth of stuffed zucchini, a huge oversized squash as big as an arm, and she’d come in after her book group and scarfed it all down.
“She tries to diet and then gets mad at herself.” Mary pondered. “She should just accept that’s the way she is.”
The fixing of the seat took six days, sewing, adjusting the padding so the phone books wouldn’t slip and the sides rose up to enclose Jane. Fortunately, the truck’s long stick shift was easy for her to reach. Mary taught a little every day and tested Jane. Where is the choke? Okay, do it. Lights, brights, wipers, emergency brake. They fixed the broken back window with tape and a piece of cardboard. Mary sealed the seams with clear nail polish.
Then the real lessons started. They went on an old road, columns of trees on both sides, straight as far as they could see. They practiced starting, the gradual relay of clutch and gas. Jane found the brake again and again until it was easy. When the car sputtered and died on the late-afternoon road, no one knew.
Clouds bagged huge and magnificent.
In the rosy, cricket-loud dust, Jane pedaled and shifted, as naturally as the woman they’d seen once playing the organ in an empty church. Mary made her do it all again with her eyes closed, which was like swimming in rain.

~

Braids, piecrusts, flowers in a vase, require talents that yield only themselves, nothing more than those passing pleasures. But Mary didn’t have the knack. She’d asked people fifty times to show her now to braid, and she still couldn’t do it deftly. Jane’s braids always looked uneven, at once too loose and too tight. Girls who lived in town with their grandparents came to school with braids like this, to keep the hair off the face. Only the young mothers seemed to understand that girls need a little flair, like the girls far away on television.
On Thanksgiving, Jane sat on the end of the mattress while her mother brushed her hair straight up from her head, pulling it tight, then braided it into a basket around her ears. She dressed Jane warmly, with two pair of socks in her new shoes. The truck seat was packed with a grocery bag, Jane’s clothes, her bear and her old shoes. They’d quarreled over those shoes; they had holes in the soles, and Mary wondered what people would think of her, sending a child with shoes like that, as if these same people would accept it as perfectly normal to send her in a truck over the mountains.
“What do you care?” Jane had argued. “I need them.”
Mary rolled down the top of the grocery bag, with Jane’s four Twinkies, Fig Newtons, an apple and a banana.
Then everything was done. Jane’s braids were tight and her scalp still felt as if someone were pulling her up by the hair. She sat on the bed, hands clutching under the mattress.
Her mother knelt on the floor. She slid off Jane’s left shoe and rolled down the double sock. Then she took a breath and lined her words along one edge, her attempt to be firm. She felt it was necessary to warn Jane about life’s dangers.
“Now, I’m giving you money,” she said without smiling. “That’s twenty, forty, seventy. And one, two, three, four, five ones. That’s a lot of money, do you hear?”
Jane noticed that her mother kept no dollars for herself, and this frightened her.
“Don’t, whatever you do, let anyone see you when you take that out.” Her mother folded each bill into a small triangle, like a flag, and put them in the bottom of her sock. She pushed the shoe on over Jane’s heel, tied the laces and patted it finished.
“Get just what you need. Because it was hard to save that. And here.” She pulled the special undershirt over Jane’s chest. She’d sewn in a pocket to hide her ring—as proof. Years ago, Owens had given her the ring, hidden inside a cherry pie. She’d sent him pictures of Jane every season, but he had never acknowledged them so they couldn’t be sure.
They watched the sky change, waiting. Finally, stars glittered against black, and Mary clapped a hat on Jane’s head. With the hat and the height of the telephone books, no one would see Jane was a child.
Mary fixed a glass of coffee the slow way and fed it to Jane with a spoon, as she had when Jane was a much younger child. From the first taste, Jane knew her mother had used the last sugar.
“Now I don’t want you to go.” Mary laughed a little.
“I don’t want to go either,” Jane said, her hands lifted, soft on her mother’s shoulders.
“But it’s the best thing, my little paw. He’ll have a house and you’ll get your own bedroom. He’ll probably buy you your own bike.”
For a moment, Jane lapsed to imagine. She’d seen a television show once where children ran around an obstacle course hammering bells, winning a prize with each ding. But in less than a minute, Jane went from being someone who’d always wanted many things to someone for whom prizes, if they rained on her now, came too late. “I won’t have a mother,” she said plainly, as they walked under the high cloudless sky.
“But you had me. And we’ve always had a better relationship than I had with my mother, ever. You can remember that I went as long as I could for you. And I always will love you, wherever I’m sitting.” They stopped at the truck. “If I had the money I’d buy you a little locket you could have around your neck.”
“I’ll get one someday.” For a long time already, Jane assumed she could do things her mother only wished for.
“And it’ll be from me. Whoever pays.”
In a tree above the truck, Jane saw an owl, stiffly lurching. She pressed closer to her mother, listened to her heart like the far sound inside a shell and felt the pull of an empty immensity, the attraction of wind, the deep anonymous happiness of sleep. “I want to stay with you.”
“No,” her mother said, separating their bodies, the way a lover might.
Through the window, her mother pulled on the truck’s lights, illuminating the invisible before them, and Jane had the sensation of being pushed, as she had been years earlier, trying to learn to ride a bike. In no time at all, she was down the road, wobbling until she caught her balance, past her mother, the cabin contracting in the small rounded mirror. She stopped the truck, leaned out the window and cried, “Mama!”
Her mother’s choked voice echoed back through trees. “Go on ahead, Jane. Go now.”
Jane drove. Her mother had taught her patiently and well, at dusk while others ate their supper. Jane saw her own leg, long for a ten-year-old, reaching the wooden block pedal, and she thought of her mother and the man who was her father marveling over her pats and understood, for the first time, this is why. The world seemed for a moment to have become clear, and remarkable uses for her brow, arms, cheekbones and widow’s peak would soon become apparent: she could use them to cross mountains, to collapse distance and to fly back in time.
She rounded a curve and felt herself flying already—sitting so high in the truck she could feel the velocity and whistling air—but her hands without her steered the wheels back into chronological time and she drove down a long simple road. Her mother’s pencil-drawn map lay on the seat next to her. She was traveling west, with an old sense of which way west was.
The envelope labeled Owens poked into her side. “I better safety-pin it on,” her mother had apologized.
Jane understood she was driving at night so shadows would conceal her childhood. Her mother had put her to bed six afternoons, waking her late and leading her on stumbling sidewalks outside, to prepare her dreams for daylight and accustom her eyes to the dark. There was no heat or radio in the truck, there never had been, and the sounds that entered through cracks were sounds of the world repairing itself in its sleep. Animals moved in the distance, water seeped somewhere invisible, and there was the etching work of wind on branches, ticking. Jane listened to the sounds people almost never hear and forgot about driving and then snapped erect at attention when she caught herself swinging hammocklike into the lurching swoon of sleep. She opened the window and drove rigid, eating the air.
No one passed but, twice, mile-long semis, and then it was just clutching the wheel hard, through an arc like an amusement park ride, the noise so whole it carried you in it. And it wasn’t up to her if it let you down again or not. But it did and she was still there, her teeth chattering loose, the truck wobbling on the plain dark road.
For the rest of her life, moments from that night would rise into Jane’s memory to haunt and enchant her, though the sequence of the drive itself remained a mystery, so that finally she could only claim what her great-grandmother had once said after lifting a Ford off the junkyard ground to save her only child’s back: “I don’t know how I did it. I couldn’t do it now if you paid me.”
Jane wanted to stop and lie down in the seat, but she was afraid of day: if she couldn’t make herself wake up. She had the clock, she could put it by her ear or inside her shirt on her chest. She decided to pull over and eat just one Fig Newton. That would help. But it tasted dry and strong; she didn’t really like them without milk. Water from the round canteen tasted metal, sticking to the back of her teeth. She finally let herself sleep, holding the clock against her chest, then woke with a start and it was only a quarter hour. On her knee she had a scab. She picked it off and ate it, liking the tough opening taste of blood.
Her mother had warned her not to let the gas go down to empty. She had painted a red line on the glass gauge with fingernail polish. But now the needle was hovering below and there was no filling station. When Jane felt frightened, she pulled on the wheel and made herself sit up straight. “I will always sit up straight from now on,” she told herself.
She mad numerous promises to God on that night. By the end, she’d promised her whole life away to goodness.
Later, the road widened and she stopped at a ten-bank gas station, got her money out and put on her hat. She was trembling and her knee jumped when the man came over to help her. He was an old man and small. “Fillerup?”
She handed him one of the twenties.
“Okeydokey.”
She picked a scab from her elbow, watching. When he put the hose back in its slot she drove away. That was done.

At one point, Jane began singing all the songs she knew, the night everywhere around dimensionless and still beginning, and she came to understand that she knew very few songs, and of those she remembered only one verse and a scattered mess of words with spaces between. Most were from camp meetings and she despised them. After “The Farmer in the Dell,” she tried the Beatles songs her mother liked to hum.
She did numbers then—picturing them, the line, the carry-the-one—and for a while she named the things she knew. Capitals lasted nine states, history was a little better, and she remembered only the first two lines of a poem she’d once had to memorize: “By the shore of Gitche Gumee, By the shining Big-Sea-Water…” She now understood the point of memorization. Rhymes and numbers and state capitals and presidents could keep you out loud at a time like this. All Jane knew was what she hated.
But she had been doing other things while her classmates chanted their gradual multiplication tables. In the tree hollow she had placed seven acorns, unfitting their hats and sprinkled each one with salt: that was for Mack to come back with her mother. She’d made offerings too for weather and the end of weather. She didn’t plan. Each commandment came complete, sometimes in school, and she had to obey. One time, she took a nest down and put in the three broken parts of her mother’s sparkly pin. These were her small duties that guaranteed nothing. Only, if she did not do them, it could be worse.
She drove that night in a straight line, through storm, the crack of lightning, trees of white, sheets of water dividing, spray on both sides, and it came to her that she had passed into the other world, where her mother was dead. Jane felt sure her mother was going to die, because that was the only reason she could imagine they had to be apart: her mother so pretty and, everyone always said, so young. “Yeah?” Mary questioned, with a strange expression, whenever Jane reported a compliment. Mary didn’t trust people talking about them. She felt always alert to the possibility that they were making fun of her.
Jane had never had a death yet. Mary had told how she’d leaned down and kissed her mother in the coffin. And Jane had the picture now of her mother dead. She could be dead the same way she had been a thousand times on the bed, sleeping, the way her face went, lying down, everything draped from her nose. Jane started crying for herself because she didn’t even get to kiss her mother.
In the beginning, more things were alive: plants felt, something commanded, creatures lived in the sky. The morning after her trip to her father, she woke up in a hole of dirt, her mouth full of stones, her hands smelling for a long time of gasoline. The most terrible and wondrous experience of Jane di Natali’s life was over by the time she was ten, before she’d truly mastered the art of riding a bicycle.
 
About
 
The Lost Father
Mayan Stevenson, also known as Ann Stevenson, and as Mayan Atassi, the daughter in Anywhere But Here, is finally on her own. She is a young woman whose nature is as unsettled as the possible combinations of her name would suggest. She is now in medical school, and her everyday life is normal enough. But even so, her lifelong obsession returns with a vengeance, disturbing her hard-won stability. This is the story of her search-both emotional and literal-for the father who disappeared. In search of the man without whom she cannot find herself, she hires one detective, then another. And thus she begins a journey through her past, family and friends, becoming her own true detective in a quest that reaches across America to foreign lands, and eventually leads her into our collective yearning for belief, longing and love.

The Lost Father confirms the truth of the constant struggle to find faith and to locate and preserve a protector in a world with too many absences.
 
Reviews
 
The Lost Father
“Though Mayan’s efforts to find her father read like a gripping detective story – full of the sort of suspense that comes with the unraveling of clues and the narrowing of leads – the most impressive aspect of the novel is its minutely detailed evocation of one woman’s life, its clear-sighted portrayal of love and memory and loss.

[…] Indeed, The Lost Father ratifies the achievement of Anywhere But Here, attesting to its author’s possession of both a dazzling literary gift and uncommon emotional wisdom.

In the end, The Lost Father is one of those books that takes over the reader’s life for a couple of days, a book that should galvanize Mona Simpson’s reputation as one of the most accomplished writers of her generation.”
– Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Mona Simpson’s first novel, Anywhere But Here (1986), won the kind of praise that makes authors delirious, at least until they sit down to write their second. Critics called it ‘brilliant,’ ‘astonishing’ and ‘wholly original.’ It was the beautifully told story of Ann, 12, who makes her way from Wisconsin to California with a mother whose fantasies and fixations become a stand-in for home life. A big, complex, absorbing book, ‘Anywhere But Here’ would have been the high point of many novelist’s career; as a debut, it was a phenomenon. Now comes the ever-problematic second novel—and it’s equally phenomenal. If Simpson got the jitters remembering all that hoopla, she doesn’t show it. Bring back those adjectives: The Lost Father is brilliant, astonishing and wholly original.

[…] Simpson is a master of discretion, pacing and psychological drama, and she’s created a marvel. As Ann’s search intensifies, as facets of her father’s life move in and out of focus, as our knowledge of Ann’s life grows more richly textured, her obsession becomes a window onto a wide and engaging world.”
– Laura Shapiro, Newsweek

“The Lost Father picks up the story of Ann Stevenson, the 12-year-old central figure of the earlier novel, years later, as she attempts to cope with medical school, an isolated life in New York City and, most important, her lifelong obsession with finding the father she never knew. She hasn’t seen him since she was 12. Then he was a mundane, well-educated sort of drifter-dreamer, an immigrant from Egypt; she has no idea of his new profession, though she entertains the persistent hope that it is mysterious and exotic (international gambler? gigolo?) and part of the glamorous reason for his absence. Ann now calls herself Mayan, the name her father gave her, and her new level of obsession is extreme: at times the reader feels that next to her, Ahab is a man with a notion, Humbert Humbert a guy with an odd craving.

[…] it is a superb book. [...] a wave of wanting to know does start building; it does become urgent that we see if Mayan ever finds her father and, if so, what happens next. The portrait of Mayan that emerges is marvelous in its acuity and richness. ‘The thing I still love best about us, my mother and me,’ she says, ‘is that we wanted so.’ Ms. Simpson evokes precisely the gritty and visceral intensity of that need.

Despite her unhappiness, Mayan finds the world beautiful (‘This was my only way of praying’), and the author’s language can be breathtaking in the simple beauty of its imagery (‘The streets felt quieter than Cairo,’ she says, speaking of Alexandria, ‘neighborhoods lower, the old sun like a bucket full of water spilled on the bricks’) or in its combination of the lyrical and the astute (‘When she made promises like that,’ Mayan observes of her mother, ‘her eyes filled to the surface as if the part of her that wished crossed the part of her that lied and gave a certain kind of smiling face with tears, like a rainbow”). Mona Simpson demonstrates, throughout this novel, a spectacular talent for rendering tumultuous emotional states with eloquence and economy. Speaking of the clarifying effect her father has had on her life, Mayan says, ‘He gave us ourselves back in real light.’ In its wisdom, grace, generosity, and intelligence, The Lost Father does the same for us.”
– Jim Shepard, The New York Times

“The Lost Father is a sequel in spirit to Mona Simpson’s first novel, the best-selling ‘Anywhere But Here.’ Intimate in scale, it is profound in implication: a study of the effects of being unfathered.

[…] Simpson’s work takes on a larger meaning when this deep longing for a father is reflected in the virtually universal need for a higher being, the one who loves without qualification, who nourishes when there is no bread, and who protects, even beyond death. ‘All you had to do to become somebody’s God is disappear.’

At the fulcrum of the novel, Ann goes to Egypt to find her father among his forbears. In a beautiful scene that contains elements of the virgin birth, a retrieval of innocence and the grace that love affords, Ann experiences a homeland and the Egyptian people. She encounters a young Egyptian man, and begins her healing.

In Ann’s story there’s a resurrection, a crisis in faith and a resolution as natural an inevitable as life itself. ‘Why you are unwanted: That is the only question. In the end, you understand, that is always the question you came here to ask…And at the same time…you understand too…that is the one question no one can ever answer you.’

An essence of family life has been distilled; unsweetened, it is a heady perfume. Mona Simpson’s The Lost Father evokes reflections on the nature of families, of constancy and of love. It’s an enriching experience.”
– Beverly Langer, San Francisco Chronicle

“Here Simpson writes with mature skill and energy about a character fueled by complex aches and longings. Mayan desperately feels the need to find her father, if only to prove to him that she made a life for herself, despite his absence. At the book’s end she does find the understanding she seeks. She finds her safe place within herself.”
– Lorenzo Carcaterra, People

“For all its exquisite excess and brimming detail, The Lost Father is really about a space that can never be filled: the absence created by the father, the void left untended by the mother. In this light, Mayan’s self-awareness, even in the midst of her despair, grants her story the vision of the middle distance – she’s not so much standing on a bluff and surveying the wreckage as she is doing a fancy cliff walk, reporting back despite all her cuts and bruises.

[…] One is inevitably left with a sense of sorrow and resolution at the end of The Lost Father, which, for all its attention to missed connections and random moments, is really about the accumulation of time. So that is what family is, one thinks – not just a birthright or a face in a photograph, but the slow, constant gathering of history as well as love.”
– Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe

“Emory, a minor character in Mona Simpson’s second novel, makes miniature buildings out of toothpicks and glue – factories, temples, civic centres, bridges. The Lost Father is somewhat similar: a bulky volume, over 500 pages, but put together in an extraordinarily intricate way, tense, complicated, yet surprisingly airy.

[…]The father, when she and we finally get to meet him, is a wonderful creation, chariming but not in the flamboyant way Mayan expects, a winsome, vain creature who cannot satisfy the combative emotional demands of a mid-western college girl. The end of this fine novel is as much a clash of cultures as an Oedipal reckoning.”
– Mary Morrissy, The Independent on Sunday
 
Excerpts
 
The Lost Father
“If it is miracles you are after, you must know how to wait.” – Oskar, The Tin Drum

Prologue

We believed. All our lives we believed, all our separate lives.
My grandmother never did. She died old, never believing, and she was the only one of us who went to regular church, with a pocketbook to match the season, at the nine o’clock mass every Sunday. She had never been a Christian until her husband died. Then she capitulated, gracefully, ending the one battle that had lasted them all his life. It was then that she began to buy hats.
There were two of us who were his. My mother and me. My grandmother respected our feelings although she never liked my father. She made my cousin give me the cowboy suit just because I didn’t have enough myself from him. My cousin didn’t see the point. “Your dad’s an Indian giver.”
“Shht. Now do like I tell you,” my grandmother finished our fight. She could be unfair and we would obey here, because she cared for our comforts. She was good to us. We trusted her.
My mother is fifty-six years old and in a way she still believes. She would say she does not but she has saved herself for him, saved herself beyond saving, to a spoiled bitter that expects only the worst. But in her private soul she is a child holding an empty glass jar waiting for the sky to fill it, for him to return and restore us to our lives. To me, my childhood; to her, the marriage she once had and threw away and will now cherish forever as some unreachable crystal heaven. It is he, she believes, who stole her glitter and throne, her money, her wings, which after all are only petals of the years.
My grandmother was always on the other side. She used herself and whatever she had for her life. Her husband was dead and to her, so was my father. There was no Head of Household. But at the age of fifty, she learned to pay taxes and to drive. She spent. We, even in our extravagance, were always saving.
Now, I can tell in children, who has that hole that is belief and which children will be children of this world. You can see it in a class of first-graders. You can recognize in a group of eleven-year-olds, the children who lose their rings and their gloves, their keys, the same children who themselves get lost in department stores, on the way to the library or to school. They are the children who are waiting, in their hectic way, for something. You can read from the small things that collect and disappear around them, the quality not of their order or disorder, but of their aspect to it. Any stranger could have seen it in me.
It depended on how quick you had an answer. I was too quick on the top but really I was infinitely slow. Our patience was tragic. We were people who could spend our lives loving one person who never cared for us.
I grew up without a father, but those years while it was happening, I never understood that it would always be that way. We expected him to come back. Any day. And then, when he didn’t, my mother thought she would marry someone else and he would be the father. “He’ll buy you things,” she said. “You just wait and see.”
I waited. There was nothing else I could do.
My mother was a young woman then; she was waiting, also, for her life.
From place to place we moved an embroidered sampler. Row Row Row Your Boat, Gently Down the Stream, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Life Is But a Dream. She always hung it in the kitchen, usually near the sink. Sometimes she looked at it and sighed.
Once she did marry someone else. But he never seemed to either of us like a father.
Absence has qualities, properties all its own, but no voice. The colors of his absence were the blue and white of a Wisconsin sky, a black like telephone poles and lines falsely on the distance, or a tossed spray of crows. The brown of a man’s old suit, bagging pants and worn leather shoes; there were traveling men, hoboes, those days, and every time we saw one across a field it was him. The yellow of a moth, the gray of sheer mountain rock in Colorado, even the dusk smell of a summer field. He was the forced empty clean of those cheap mints from taverns, green in the middle of white. That taste meant empty, like the tiled tavern my mother and I went in once during the daytime to use the phone and buy gum.
He would never know. He wasn’t watching us. Days went by and years. We understood we’d never remember all we had to tell. It was just now—the elapsing of our time and lives. Nothing much. We would have left it for an afternoon with him.
There were two times. Wisconsin time and his. Everything in the Midwest was patient and had to do with seasons. Everything seemed too easy for us there. Nothing was hard. In school, for me, everything was beside the point.
I never found the faith I wanted and all along I had it. It just wasn’t colored and fleshed the way I’d imagined. It was like the time my class was taken to hear a symphony orchestra. The children around me were playing hang-the-man, passing paper and pencil back and forth. They offered me a place in their game but I refused. I was following the program intently. It said two things and then Hansel and Gretel.
I imagined sets and capes and pink ballerinas. Choral opera vaulting into the sky.
Then the concert ended and there was an encore and people stood and left their programs on their seats. I never saw the pageant I expected.
Faith was that way. Thinner, abstract. Only music.
We wanted too much from this world.
We believed in an altogether different life than the one we had, my mother and I. We wanted brightness. We believed in heaven. We thought a man would show us there. First it was my father. We believed he would come back and make me a daughter again, make my mother a wife. My grandmother did not like him, but I prayed for her anyway. If he came, we didn’t want her to be left behind.
My mother never lost her faith in men, but after years, it became more general. She believed a man would come and be my father, some man. It didn’t have to be our original one, the one we’d prayed to first as one and only. Any man with certain assets would do. In this we disagreed, but quietly. I was becoming a fanatic.
We moved to California. I thought maybe if he saw my face on TV. That is the way I was with men. I wanted love but a high far kind that made my breath hard as if it wouldn’t last.
I was ashamed of my wishes as if there were inherent wrong in them that showed and if I told anyone they would see it was my own fault I would never be happy. I wanted too much. Foolish things. But I wanted them anyway. I couldn’t stop my longings. I could only keep them to myself. It is pathetic now to remember. They were ordinary girls toys, full of netting and spotlights, sugar and ballet. I wanted wands, wings, glittery slippers from my father. I wanted to dance while someone watched me.
“Look at me,” I dared.
“Shht,” my grandmother used to say. “Keep still.” She settled my arm against my sides. “There now, that’s better. What you got you think is so special, huh?”
“I don’t know,” I said. That was the answer to everything in childhood. “Nothing” and “I don’t know.”
My grandmother didn’t care about brightness or any of its forms. She didn’t care about fancy, shining things, she had all the money she needed. She didn’t care about intelligence or newness. My mother understood too that these qualities weren’t any closer to God. But God would always be there like stones in the road, there was all the time in the world for God, we could go back and pick God up, after we were young. But when a person bad-off slanted across the street, when my mother helped someone old, she would remember. You could see it in her eyes.

For years my mother and I waited together. We had been together my whole life. Other people had come into our family, but only she and I stayed. The hardest thing I ever did was leave my mother.
The spring before I first went away, to college, we drove out to get ice cream cones at night.
I told her she might still get married. “But he won’t be my father,” I said. Our time for that had passed.
My mother had tried substituting once before, in Wisconsin, with Ted Stevenson the ice-skating pro, but she thought it would be different here in California, the man would be rich, someone who could give us life.
“Well sure he will. You’ll see. Just wait and see.”
I had waited already a long time.
“I don’t need a father anymore. You don’t need a father when you’re twenty, Mom.”
“Sure you do. Just wait’ll you come home from college and want to bring the boys and your friends to a place that’ll impress them a little. That’s when you’ll really need a father. And he’ll buy you things maybe, and make a nice place for you to bring kids home to and see. Just wait. You can’t know how you’ll feel then. You’ll see.” That was her way of getting off a subject when she had to.
“I already had a father and he wasn’t there.”
“He wasn’t there for me either,” she said.
“I don’t want one anymore.”
Then, later, she began to expect him too, but in a bad way, as a danger that could drive me from her.

My mother had always talked to me about marriage. It was her great subject because it was what she never really had. She felt she had missed the boat, so she advised me, starting when I was very young, too young to do anything about her suggestions. College, she said, college was the promising time and place. When I was a child in Wisconsin, I already knew I’d go to college. From the way she talked it was a large green summer camp where everyone wore beautiful clothes. Hundreds of good young men just walked around waiting to be picked. When I wanted things in high school, the same as what she bought for herself, she’d scream at me, you, you don’t really need the clothes now, I need them, I’m the one who has to catch a man, you won’t marry any of these boys you know now. You think it’s important because you’re in it, but it’s really not. High school doesn’t matter. Unh-uh. She was angry at me. I still had it ahead of me—college—she was way past that. When you’ll really need the clothes and the house and the car and the everything is in college, and then maybe, if I get someone now, I’ll have it all to give you.
“Marry someone in college,” she said, “that’s when you meet the really great kids. Find him there.”
But then when I was in college, she didn’t like who I found. I didn’t want to marry him anyway. I used to say that I couldn’t imagine a wedding because I had no one to walk me down the aisle. But it was worse than just my father. We were a carnival freak show, us. And I didn’t like other people’s better families adopting me either. They seemed as bad, only with money. And not mine.
I always knew I wouldn’t do it my mother’s way. That seemed like an old-fashioned wish. When I went to my first wedding I was twenty-two and I kept thinking that they were too young. Their faces looked round and liquid the same as always and they looked funny in their clothes. I was a bridesmaid in a mint green chiffon dress. All the rest of us were still just graduate students, or kids with promising stupid jobs. I didn’t envy the bride and groom at all. I thought I’d get married late. We’ll, I thought I knew exactly when. I thought twenty-seven. By then, I wanted to be rich and have the Beatles play at my wedding. That was already impossible. The Beatles had been apart for years. But I still thought about it. Poor people always want things like that.
You will, my mother whispered once. I didn’t really expect the things she promised anymore, but I didn’t disbelieve her yet either. She always told me we were royalty really. People didn’t know it, but we were. It was something we whispered about. I wasn’t supposed to tell.
I always wanted to marry an architect, even when I was a little girl. It was the first idea I had about who I wanted to marry. I thought I’d be a ballerina. And the only reason I’d thought of being a ballerina was our fifth-grade teacher was trying to teach us about money. We had to make a budget. First, he wanted us to choose a profession and ask for a particular salary. He let everyone be what they said and gave them the salary they had asked for. Mine was the most in the class. I’d asked for three hundred and fifty dollars a week. “Performers make a lot of money,” my mother had told me. “Go ahead and ask.”
“You have to ask for what you want in the world,” the teacher said. “Put a high price on yourselves and the world will probably be fool enough to pay it.” He was using me as a positive point, this teacher, to teach us all to feel entitled to more than we had. But I could tell in a way he hated me. He was like the others himself. Three hundred and fifty dollars a week was more than he or any of our parents earned in Wisconsin.
Even though I didn’t really want to be a ballerina. You would have to go somewhere like New York City to do that and I didn’t want to go. I didn’t even like practicing that much. My mother and Ted the ice-skating pro had never gotten around to putting up a barre for me in the basement. Dance was just the only thing I did then besides school. And what I was good at and cared about—marbles it used to be, and then cartwheels, a perfect, light, high cartwheel, hands sequential like the two parts of a footstep—everyone knew you couldn’t ask a weekly salary for that.
An architect was a funny thing to think of, where we lived. The houses were small tract, prefabs, most of them, with aluminum siding that, if you looked from a ways away, seemed like painted wood. People from the top part of town hired architects, but anyway most of those houses were just copies from other houses in slightly bigger, more glamorous places. The people had seen what they wanted in Minneapolis, say, or Milwaukee, and then had paid to have it built with its same columns along our smaller lake here.
I didn’t take ballet much longer after that year we made our budgets. When I was twelve, my mother and I moved to California so I could be on television. Even in California, my mother still never made three hundred and fifty dollars a week and I saw the world in a way much closer to my fifth-grade teacher’s than he could have imagined. Still, he shouldn’t have hated me. He didn’t know the half of it. My mom and I ate dinner on top of sealed-up cardboard boxes every night.
Is it fortunate or an unfortunate thing, to own a life that makes you believe in the invisible? I still don’t know. Faith can come to a person slowly, like a gradual climb up long stairs, or it can be heady and dizzying. Or it can be strong as an iron banister, never reached for or thought of at all. But the propensity for faith is inherent, like an organ or a sexual inclination. I always possessed the place for religion, but faith was unsteady in me, flitting. I didn’t always believe my father existed. The sacred had no voice for me, I was sure of it. I had been listening all my life. And whose faith was more true, those who searched for it, working and strained, or those who had never thought of it at all?
When I was eighteen I left. It is a different thing to wait with another person than it is to wait alone. But I still believed.
I believed without knowing I believed and then, the year I was twenty-eight, I stopped. When that happened I did not know if I could continue. I had lived that way, trying, for so long.
Then the world was stiller, less light. Spirit was not everywhere but a common, transient thing.
All my life I had been looking for my father. It had been my own shame. Then, the year I was twenty-eight, I found him. And everything changed.
 
About
 
Anywhere But Here
Adele is fleeing small-town boredom and what she believes to be the dead-end lives of her mother and sister. She is pulled west by the desire to find a rich new husband for herself and to make Ann (in Ann's own words) "a child star while I was still a child." The Hollywood they seek is the legendary Hollywood of talent scouts and overnight discovery. The California through which they move is a series of apartments never quite furnished, and never quite adequate jobs for Adele: teacher, restaurant hostess, even maid. As Adele continues to pursue her fantasies with an almost demonic energy and ingenuity-constantly outraging Ann's growing sense of the real-the violence, the love, the subtlety of feeling that bind this mother and daughter are made piercingly clear. Anywhere But Here is a novel that freshly and powerfully reveals-through its portrayal of a mother and daughter bound for California and the Midwestern family left behind-a host of American myths and dreams as they take shape in the present. The eternal trek westward and the yearnings that fuel it-the obsessive desire to rise in the world, the passion to be anywhere but the here we are born to, a belief in the amazing grace conferred by the right possessions-these are the totems embodied in the restless, ambitious Adele August. As the novel opens she is on the road with her 12-year-old daughter Ann, running away to California in her splendid (unpaid-for) white Lincoln Continental.

As their pilgrimage proceeds toward the dreamed-of-future, the stories of those left behind in Bay City, Wisconsin-told in the voices of Adele's mother and sister-carry for the reader their own surprises, while they also bear witness to the power of time and endurance, the pull of past and of family.

It is the special quality of Mona Simpson's novel to give us characters who are at once emblems of American life and totally individual and alive in their moral complexity and emotional range. The Augusts, mother and daughter, are triumphant creations. And Adele, having her final say about "making it," provides a memorable coda to a book that holds us with its storytelling brilliance, its sharp and profound understanding, its generosity of spirit.
 
Reviews
 
Anywhere But Here
A stunning first novel – a real big, burgeoning talent. The two women in the book are American originals. Twelve-year-old Ann is a new Huck Finn, a tough, funny, resourceful love of a girl. Adele, her mother, is like no one I’ve encountered, at once deplorable and admirable – and altogether believable. Adele – and the book – are wound up brilliantly in the last few pages. It laid me out.
- Walker Percy

Mona Simpson has a remarkable gift for transforming the homely cadences of plain American speech into something like poetry. A stunning debut.- John AshberryThere is a sure strong sense here of the way famlies are, their dense conflicts and loyalties, and in particular a raw amazing heart-breaking portrayal of a new sort of mother and daughter—the sort who haven’t turned up before in anything else I’ve read.
- Alice Munro

“Anywhere But Here would be remarkable even as a 10th novel, but it’s not; it’s the author’s first. No one would guess it. Mona Simpson writes with confidence, with a swagger. She is already a master.”
– Anne Tyler, USA Today

“In relating the story of Ann and her mother, Adele, Ms. Simpson not only creates a compelling tale of family love and duplicity, but she also takes on – and reinvents – many of America’s essential myths, from our faith in the ever-receding frontier to our uneasy mediation between small-town pieties and big-time dreams. […] But if Anywhere But Here carries echoes of the “on the road” novel, the “small town” novel, and the Western-pioneer novel, Ms. Simpson also succeeds in creating a wholly original work – a work stamped with the insignia of a distinctive voice and animated by two idiosyncratic and memorable heroines.
[…] Indeed, it is one of Ms. Simpson’s many achievements in this sad, fierce novel that she makes us understand about families—how we are trapped by them and how we can escape; how we are irrevocably shaped by the defections and betrayals of others, and how we may transcend those losses through love and will. She makes us understand the idea of home and what it means to lose that idea of safety and place; and in doing so, she makes us apprehend the darkness that lies just beneath the brightly painted surfaces of daily life.”
– Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

Strong-minded young women have been a staple of American fiction since at least Louisa May Alcott; Will Cather, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers and Ellen Gilcrhist, among others, have all contributed to the forging of a kind of feminine Huck Finn tradition. Now, making a very impressive debut as a novelist, Mona Simpson adds an original character of her own to the line. Yet Ann August, vital as she is, generates only half the novel’s energy; for, as the opening sentence (“We fought.”) bluntly announces, this is the story of two determined women, a portrait of a mother-daughter relationship as tangled and ambivalent as Electra’s with Clytemnestra.

[…] To achieve the complication of feeling that makes the novel so unsettling, she takes risks with language that a less assured writer might not have brought off. An example: Adele has just threatened to put Ann in an orphanage. ‘She reached over and closed my door again. The buttercups blurred together now in one smear of color and we could hear crickets starting. Lights came on in the orphanage’s small windows. Her face was over me. She looked down at me hard, as if she were looking at her own reflection in water. One of her tears dropped into my eye.’

In context this passage does not express (although it skirts) bathos. It expresses feelings it is impossible to describe as either love or hate. Like the novel as a whole, it momentarily takes your breath away.”
– Elizabeth Ward, The Washington Post

“Simpson’s novel achieves its force not so much through plotting as through the steady accumulation of sharply drawn scenes. In less skilled hands, such narration could easily become shapeless and repetitious. But Simpson has a sure instinct for the flash points of love and rage in her characters and she soft-pedals nothing. Though Anywhere But Here is Simpson’s first novel, she has already earned a place beside domestic pioneers like Anne Tyler and Alice Munro. She has not only shaken the family tree, she has plucked it from its soil to expose its tangled system of roots.”
– Richard Panek, Chicago Tribune

“Simpson makes the scatty cloud-battling of Adele’s and Ann’s lives grotesque, funny and bitingly real. But she is not engaged in easy judgment. Into their story, she inserts episodes from the lives of Adele’s family back in Wisconsin. Taken by themselves, Adele’s and Ann’s choices seem tinselly and foolish. Taken in contrast to what they have left behind, the matter is not so simple. Simpson’s vision is very dark. Love, hope and a decent and humane life are as elusive in the old America as in the new one.

[…] The book’s rich texture and its ingenious tracking of our far-fetched normalities mark Simpson as a brightly talented new writer. Something deeper and more exciting than bright talent is suggested by the stony pain of Carol’s narration, and by subtle variations of Ann’s outbursts and silences, with their light and terrible shadows.”
– Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times

“Anywhere But Here is Simpson’s first novel, and it is a dazzling one indeed. Layer after layer of short, intense scenes produces a powerful cumulative impact. By the end, a reader knows these characters thoroughly, cares about them and has experienced the awful glory of evanescent triumph and life-wrenching tragedy.

[…] This is real life, genuine feeling, the prose proclaims in sentence after sentence. This is real heartbreak, this is America dreaming and crashing and, in spite of everything, going on.

Adele dares to be a great and misguided dreamer, like Willy Loman in ‘Death of a Salesman,’ like Blanche DuBois in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ like Hickey in ‘The Iceman Cometh.’ When, near the close of the book, she tells her daughter, ‘Life is just too little, isn’t it?’ we can see that Adele transcends her own victimhood. Even so, she cannot bear to recognize the victim she herself has created.”
– Dan Cryer, Newsday

“Mona Simpson’s first novel Anywhere But Here is a wonder: big, complex and masterfully written, it’s an achievement that lands her in the front ranks of our best younger novelists. She charts the fortunes of a mother and daughter, Adele and Ann, who make their way from rural Wisconsin to Hollywood—‘so I could be a child star while I was still a child,’ as Ann explains it.

[…] One of the most welcome pleasures of this book is its old-fashioned sense of amplitude. Not many serious novelists these days strike a reader as generous; more often they seem to feed us on scraps. Simpson doesn’t skimp, and she uses details of food and clothing to refine a scene rather than sum it up. Anywhere But Here signals the arrival of a distinguished new writer, and one with a mind of her own.”
– Laura Shapiro, Newsweek

“Some scenes are excruciating, difficult to read. Yet Adele isn’t merely a hateful monster, a cardboard Mommie Dearest. She’s a vibrant, three-dimensional woman, wounded as well as wounding, as is the bond between the two women. And Simpson’s triumph is to have given us two such compelling women and a relationship that is as loving and destructive, vulnerable and indestructible, as triumphant as her characters.”
– Alix Madrigal, The San Francisco Chronicle

“This heartbreaking novel is told in a voice as clear and unencumbered as the California light it describes. With her lip-trembling courage, her petty thefts, her survivor’s humor, Ann August is so evocative that she feels more like a gifted, troubled cousin than a fictional creation.

[…] Anywhere But Here is a moving, extraordinary achievement: its mother-daughter team one of the most intricately rendered in contemporary fiction. Simpson writes about family – about the debts and betrayals of intimacy – with the clinical accuracy of Jayne Anne Phillips or Louise Eldrich: like both those writers, she allows the institution a gentle respect while skewering its more deplorable excesses. The ending of the novel – as flat as the Midwestern prairies, where anything is possible – has a graceful, certain tone anything grander would undercut. Adele’s hollow fantasies somehow soften her worst crimes, all perpetrated in the name of something she calls love. This is a story of misguided dreams and the passion that fuels them – and America where security is a drawer of unopened nylons, and fear a drawer of unopened bills.”
– Gail Caldwell, The Boston Globe

“A stunning novel of dashed dreams […] Simpson has an uncanny eye for detail, for the look and texture of things. […] Nothing is lost on Simpson, but she never condemns her characters: she’s a witness, not a judge.”
– James Atlas, Vanity Fair
 
Excerpts
 
Anywhere But Here
We fought. When my mother and I crossed state lines in the stolen car, I’d sit against the window and wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t even look at her. The fights came when I thought she broke a promise. She said there’d be an Indian reservation. She said that we’d see buffalo in Texas. My mother said a lot of things. We were driving from Bay City, Wisconsin, to California, so I could be a child star while I was still a child.
“Talk to me,” my mother would say. “If you’re upset, tell me.”
But I wouldn’t. I knew how to make her suffer. I was mad. I was mad about a lot of things. Places she said would be there, weren’t. We were running away from family. We’d left home.
Then my mother would pull to the side of the road and reach over and open my door.
“Get out, then,” she’d say, pushing me.
I got out. It was always a shock the first minute because nothing outside was bad. The fields were bright. It never happened on a bad day. The western sky went on forever, there were a few clouds. A warm breeze came up and tangled around my legs. The road was dull as a nickel. I stood there at first amazed that there was nothing horrible in the landscape.
But then the wheels of the familiar white Continental turned, a spit of gravel hit my shoes and my mother’s car drove away. When it was nothing but a dot in the distance, I started to cry.
I lost time then; I don’t know if it was minutes or if it was more. There was nothing to think because there was nothing to do. First, I saw small things. The blades of grass. Their rough side, their smooth, waxy side. Brown grasshoppers. A dazzle of California poppies.
I’d look at everything around me. In yellow fields, the tops of weeds bent under visible waves of wind. There was a high steady note of insects screaking. A rich odor of hay mixed with the heady smell of gasoline. Two or three times, a car rumbled by, shaking the ground. Dry weeds by the side of the road seemed almost transparent in the even sun.
I tried hard but I couldn’t learn anything. The scenery all went strange, like a picture on a high billboard. The fields, the clouds, the sky; none of it helped because it had nothing to do with me.
My mother must have watched in her rearview mirror. My arms crossed over my chest, I would have looked smaller and more solid in the distance. That was what she couldn’t stand, my stubbornness. She’d had a stubborn husband. She wasn’t going to have a stubborn child. But when she couldn’t see me anymore, she gave up and turned around and she’d gasp with relief when I was in front of her again, standing open-handed by the side of the road, nothing more than a child, her child.
And by the time I saw her car coming back, I’d be covered with a net of tears, my nose running. I stood there with my hands hanging at my sides, not even trying to wipe my face.
My mother would slow down and open my door and I’d run in, looking back once in a quick good-bye to the fields, which turned ordinary and pretty again. And when I slid into the car, I was different. I put my feet up on the dashboard and tapped the round tips of my sneakers together. I wore boys’ sneakers she thought I was too old for. But now my mother was nice because she knew I would talk to her.
“Are you hungry?” was the first thing she’d say.
“A little.”
“I am,” she’d say. “I feel like an ice cream cone. Keep your eyes open for a Howard Johnson’s.”