The Lost Father

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In her second novel, The Lost Father, Mona Simpson returns to the family that previously appeared in her highly praised first work, Anywhere but Here (1987). In that novel, Adele August Stevenson dragged her twelve-year-old daughter Ann to California, certain that she could make her a film star. Always hopeful, never practical, Adele kept her child on an emotional teeter-totter, sometimes berating her or even abandoning her, sometimes, just as unpredictably, celebrating with Ann victories that had occurred only in Adele’s overworked imagination.

The Lost Father, too, involves a quest. In this case, it is not Adele but Mayan (Ann) who, more like her mother than she realizes, is propelled by unmet needs and un- founded hopes. At the age of twenty-eight, Mayan has become so haunted by the memory of her father, who abandoned the family when Mayan was a small child, that she is emotionally paralyzed, unable to give herself to a loving relationship, unable even to continue her medical studies. She is convinced that she will not be able to go on with her own life until by confronting her father she can come to a sense of her own identity.

Mayan’s confusion about her identity is symbolized by the fact that she has never kept a single name for long. The name she was given at birth, Mayan Amneh Atassi, reflected the Egyptian background of her father, Mohammed Abdul Atassi. After he left, Mayan began to use the name Ann. Then, when her mother married Ted Stevenson, she changed Mayan’s school records, listing her as Ann Stevenson, even though there was never a formal adoption. As an adult, Ann has once again become Mayan, but she has retained the last name of the stepfather who, significantly, always miscalled her Maya, and who, long divorced from her mother, has a new family and no particular interest in Mayan.

In Adele’s world not only names, but all facts, are flexible. Truth, to Adele, is only an assertion dictated by whim or necessity. For example, when Mayan was only thirteen years old, Adele gave the Social Security Administration a false birth date for her, so that she could put the child to work. Unlike Adele, who is stimulated by flux and rejoices in improvisation, Mayan always has craved certainty. Although she loves her mother, she has never been sure of her mother’s love. During Mayan’s childhood, Adele would one day threaten to abandon her daughter, blaming Mayan’s existence for her own inability to catch a man, and the next day vow that because there was no one else who wanted Mayan, she would always stay with her daughter.

Although Adele provided excitement for Mayan, it was not her mother, whatever her promises, but her grandmother who provided the certainty she needed. As long as Lillian August was alive, Mayan had love she could always count on and a home to which she could always go. It is appropriate that the money her grandmother bequeathed to her is spent in Mayan’s search for her lost father. In him, she hopes to recapture the sense of security she lost when Lillian died.

After the psychological necessity for Mayan’s quest thus has been established and the search undertaken, The Lost Father takes on many of the qualities of a good detective story. As in any such work, there are innumerable barriers to be overcome, the most obvious of them being the length of time that has passed since either Mayan or her mother has heard from Mohammed. Furthermore, as Mayan discovers, her father has changed jobs and wives fairly frequently, and with every move, he has broken off contact with the people he has left, just as he did with Adele and Mayan. In addition, Mayan must also battle human indifference. A detective she hires willingly takes her money but in return gives her only useless information about her father’s early life and speculations that he might be in Egypt. After Mayan has decided to become her own detective and pursue leads in person, she encounters bureaucratic barriers, such as the inflexibility of a Montana college where her father once taught when she asks to see some records. In the tradition of a detective story, she also finds people who will help her—a retired civil servant in Wisconsin, a lawyer friend who finds his way into the Montana college records, and a more efficient investigator in California who finally locates Mohammed.

Like the typical detective of fiction, Mayan has a series of adventures, some poignant, some comic, as she pursues the truth. Her winter drive west from Wisconsin to Montana is a real odyssey, the highlight of which, incidentally, is not the discovery of new information about her own father but instead the extremely satisfying confrontation she arranges in Hebron, North Dakota, between her friend Mai linn, who has flown out for the occasion, and the foster father who abused her. On her trip to Egypt, Mayan gains the professed undying...

(The entire section is 2003 words.)