Monday, September 13, 2010

Nanny Culture--On Nanny Books, Particularly Mona Simpson's, Who'll be at Boswell on Thursday, October 21st

Wow, was it really eight years ago since The Nanny Diaries came out? That book really took me by surprise. Wasn’t nanny culture something that was for New York, Los Angeles, maybe Washington? Did we really have nannies in Milwaukee (and environs, of course)?

A quick search finds lots of nanny listing services, but no articles about the state of nanny-hood. But in the book world, nanny stories with Wisconsin ties have made a bit of a splash. Just last year, Lorrie Moore's novel, A Gate at the Stairs, was one of the most prominent novels of 2009. It's the story of a nanny in a Madison-like city who found herself witness to a deteriorating marriage. The book is now in paperback and is making a strong showing with book clubs.

Milwaukee’s own (well, she doesn't live here anymore but why not? Let's claim her anyway) Lori Tharps has a new novel called Substitute Me that looks at a white mom and her African American nanny in a hip Brooklyn neighborhood. I’ll have to ask my friends at Greenlight whether they have many kids who come in with their nannies.

(Now elderly people and their caretakers, that I’ve got. I’m waiting for the novels to come out).

This brings me to Mona Simpson’s new novel, My Hollywood, a fine new novel that alternates between the voice of a struggling work-from-home composer, and her Filipino nanny. Simpson has some Wisconsin ties (she was partly brought up in Green Bay) but the story is pure SoCal. Claire’s husband is a sitcom writer, working 80-hour weeks while he tries to get his pilot picked up. The nanny is his solution to Claire’s inability to work with her son at home. “Go to your studio and shut the door,” Paul says (paraphrased, of course), but that’s easier said than done.

The other voice is Lola, mother of five, who juggles a Monday to Friday gig with another job on weekends. She’s sending the money home to get her kids through graduate school. It’s the struggling immigrant and the American dream, but she has no intention of staying stateside; she has plans to return home to retire, only when will that be—her kids are already in their twenties.
Lola is friends with Ruth, who runs a sort of halfway house for immigrant nannies, stepping in when the women lose their jobs, or in one case, need to escape from an American sort of enslavement, with threats and even beatings. Claire’s voice is not unlike the struggling writer that you’ve probably read before, but Lola’s voice is not often heard, smart and authentic and conflicted. There’s dialogue, but it never falls for that clunky dialect thing that can turn me off.

In some ways, the story reminds me of The Space Between Us, that wonderful story of two women, one middle class, the other her servant, in modern India. And I can't end a nanny post without mentioning Francine Prose's wonderful novel of a New York au pair (French for "nanny", apparently), Primitive People. (Note to authors--if you are in Chicago for a few days and think you're going to get bored, Amtrak is $22 each way.)

So what’s the state of nannies in Southeast Wisconsin? I’d love to know.

Mona Simpson will be at Boswell on Thursday, October 21st, at 7 PM. I will buy any nanny/au pair who shows up for the event coffee from next door (yes, even a fancy one).

Here's Ron Charles' wonderful video review of Mona Simpson's My Hollywood.

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