Not My Hollywood

I was killing time in Forest Hills waiting for my new glasses to be fixed and spotted a Barnes & Noble bookstore. Once inside, I headed upstairs to the fiction section. Browsing the shelves I came across Mona Simpson’s 2010 novel, My Hollywood. 

I’d heard of Simpson when her novel Anywhere But Here was released, but had not read it. I had been reminded once again of this author after Steve Jobs had died. In a newspaper article, I discovered they were siblings. My curiosity piqued,  I looked for Anywhere But Here in B&N.

It wasn’t on the shelf. My Hollywood was. The book is described as a “domestic novel,” which is to say, centered around the home, the marriage, the kids, as well as the shameless exploitation of the nannies (Hollywood, remember, is the backdrop). Handled well (i.e., written by, say, a Wollitzer), this subject can both readable and enjoyable.

The first few pages drew me in through the lure of “shared experience.” Claire, the main character, and I are both artists who had relocated to LA. for a time, yet longed for New York (she’s a composer and musician; I’m a painter). Both of us feel like a “fish out of water” with respect to the Hollywood scene (both having had attended much dreaded parties connected to the entertainment industry (mine, mostly in the Hollywood Hills and L.A.; Claire’s, in L.A., Brentwood and Santa Monica). All of it convinced me to buy the book.

Too soon, however, I was forcing myself to plod on. The chapters alternated between two voices: the main character Claire’s voice and Lola’s voice, her Filipino nanny. Claire’s ambivalence resulted in a rather wimpy character, one devoid of the passion you’d expect from a cellist and composer. And Lola’s voice was written in an unconvincing Filipino dialect, which was both inconsistently rendered and difficult to understand. As the book progressed, I found myself speed-reading through Lola’s chapters.

Then…on page 182, a glimmer of hope. A hint, perhaps, of more stimulating events to come, especially when I read this line:

A happy day in Los Angeles, 1994.”

Theretofore, the author had not clued the reader in as to when the story was actually set. 1994-1995 was quite a dramatic time period for Los Angeles.

1994: Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered in June. 1994-1995: O.J. was indicted for murder and on the news every day.

How is it possible to write a “domestic” novel set in 1994-1995 L.A., without any reference whatsoever to this:

Yet, any mention of this crime is absent from the book. Glaringly so, considering several of Claire’s acquaintances live in Brentwood, where the murder took place.

A happy day in Los Angeles, 1994.

Throw-away sentences should never appear in a novel. Responsibility for every sentence in a novel lies on the shoulders of the author. Invariably, the reader will always hold the author accountable.

That said, the book proceeds toward the end quickly, the last few chapters leaping forward in time. The reader becomes aware of this passage of time when she encounters a chapter titled, The Comet of 1999. A one-sentence mention of this comet and nothing more ends the chapter.

Soon after, the author makes a cursory mention of the fallen Twin Towers near the end of the book and the reader is alerted that it is now 2001.

So what?

Still, reading this novel was a learning experience… if only to discover what not to do when writing your own book. Considering the stack of books I have waiting to be read, this was a disappointing way to spend what little spare time I have. As a result, I’m shying away from reading Anywhere But Here — but I’m open to favorable opinions about this novel that would sway me in the other direction, if you’d like to share!

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