Anywhere But Here

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

As the novel opens, Adele August is driving across country, headed for Hollywood in a white Lincoln Continental that she can hardly afford, with her second husband’s credit card and Ann, her almost-twelve-year-old daughter, in tow, so that Ann can become a child star while she is still a child. Adele’s flight, from her small-town, Midwestern roots to the glamour and success she is sure they will find in California, is at the center of the book and explains its title. Anywhere but Here is about Adele’s restless dissatisfaction with things as they are, about a certain kind of dreamer’s perpetual desire to be “anywhere but here”—but perhaps even more important, it is about the often-devastating effect this kind of character can have on those who are close to her, particularly, in this case, on Adele’s daughter Ann. The portrayal of this difficult mother-daughter relationship is what most makes this novel (Mona Simpson’s first) worth reading.

Four female narrators, representing three generations of the August family, tell the story, in sections of varying length, primarily through flashbacks and reminiscence. Ann, the closest to Adele, narrates most of the work. It is appropriate that the reader see Adele through the hard and clear eyes of her child; if Adele is the type who wishes to be anywhere but here, Ann, stranded in the wake of her mother’s dreams, can recount what being “here” is really like.

“We fought,” Ann’s narrative begins. “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. . . . Places she said would be there, weren’t.” Like most children, Ann cannot stand a broken promise, but she grows up on plenty of them. Adele is the kind of dreamer who in the very dreaming finds her nourishment; it does not matter that the promise goes unfulfilled. Sometimes the dream is a manipulation, as when Adele, longing to create a better bond between Ann and her new husband, Ted, suggests that Ted has the connections to get Ann on a local station (which, as it turns out, he does not). Other times it is simply the sheer will to resist an unpleasant reality, as when, in a Beverly Hills restaurant, Adele turns brightly to her daughter and says she is sure that they are both going to make it big, though they are nearly broke and friendless. The dream is also a cover-up for motives she is less willing to admit. Adele routinely invokes the myth of her self-sacrificing efforts to keep them in Beverly Hills so that Ann can stay in the best school system and make the right sort of connections to become a star eventually; yet it becomes clear that Adele’s real dream is that by living in Beverly Hills she will find herself a rich husband. When Ann finally does get an audition, she has to find a way to get there by herself, because her mother would rather go to a meeting with the psychiatrist she imagines is in love with her.

Adele is never without a new hope to carry her forward. Ann comments wryly that her mother is forty-four years old and every night still makes a wish upon a star. Despite a self-protective cynicism, Ann finds herself continually drawn in: She wants to believe her mother because the dreams are so appealing, tapping into her own innermost desires.

This cycle of baiting and disillusionment inevitably leads to another: a fight, then a routine abandonment and reconciliation. Rather than take responsibility for her failed promises, Adele turns her daughter’s disappointment into a betrayal that demands punishment. Adele pulls the car over to the side of the road, tells Ann to get out, then drives away, disappearing over the horizon; after enough time has passed so that Ann thinks that she really has been left for good, Adele returns, opens the door, and in a cheery voice suggests that they go for ice cream. One Christmas season Adele leaves their Beverly Hills apartment and calls Ann to say that she is driving her car over a cliff because Ann does not really love her and will be happier with the insurance money anyway; after several frantic hours and calls to hospitals and the police, Ann sees her radiant mom drive up with a huge Christmas tree in the trunk. It is a ritual that for Adele wipes...

(The entire section is 1755 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Anywhere but Here presents the ordinariness and the extraordinariness of the lives of four women in nine alternating, nonchronological sections that detail their hopes and fears over several decades, from Lillian in the 1930’s to Carol and Adele in the 1940’s and 1950’s to Ann in the 1970’s. Ann is the book’s most frequent narrator, arguably its protagonist, and the focus of the book revolves around her often stormy relationship with her mother, Adele.

The book begins with a crystallized moment of the tension between mother and daughter as Ann, not yet in her teens, reflects on a recurrent pattern of events that take place as she and her mother cross the western United States in her stepfather’s car. Repeatedly after a fight, Adele stops the car and makes Ann get out, as if abandoning her for good. Then, as soon as Ann is out of sight in her rearview mirror, Adele turns around and comes back for her. This ritual of abandonment and reconciliation acts as a foil to Adele’s abandonment of her home and family, which Adele repeatedly justifies as necessary to Ann’s “progress.” Freeing herself from her mother’s manipulations, Ann brings these repeated highway abandonings to a halt when she takes matters into her own hands, leaving the spot where her mother left her to call her grandmother in Wisconsin. Unable to ask Lillian to send for her, she at least proves to Adele that she can survive without her if necessary.


(The entire section is 588 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Because of the success of her first novel, Anywhere but Here, Simpson was heralded by many as a pioneering domestic writer in the tradition of Anne Tyler and Alice Munro. She was one of the first of many women writers, such as Amy Tan and Louise Erdrich, who would utilize multiple narrators and circular narratives as a major method of conveying stories. Such intertwined tales, once considered separate stories, are now considered by many critics as a relatively new genre called the short-story cycle, a genre clarified by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Many argue, however, that such works are still novels.

Anywhere but Here noticeably excludes the voices of men, focusing on women’s perspectives to provide multigenerational points of view rare in most literary works, although often utilized in romance novels. This ambiguous tie between what has often been considered “higher” forms of literature and the traditionally female-dominated field of the romance novel has created concerns among some scholars that women’s writing is still not being taken seriously by literary scholars. Of special concern and debate are works of fiction that rely heavily on common, name-brand items to create the milieu, or the overall environmental setting, of the work. Simpson’s heavy use of such description has been the most dominant negative criticism about the novel. While not heavily written about in scholarly circles, Anywhere but Here demonstrates that contemporary women’s writing is strengthening. Women such as Simpson, who has been called both a poet and a novelist because of the rich details and the strength of characterization inherent in Anywhere but Here, dare to experiment, altering perceptions both about women writers and about the nature of fiction writing.

Mona Simpson wrote a sequel to Anywhere but Here entitled The Lost Father (1991). She was awarded the Whiting Writers’ Award and a National Endowment for the Arts grant, both in 1986. In 1988, she received the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship and a Hodder fellowship. She has had numerous short stories anthologized, such as in the Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses XI and in the Best American Short Stories of 1986, and published in literary magazines, such as the Iowa Review, the Paris Review, and Ploughshares.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Beevor, Antony. “Heading West.” The Times Literary Supplement, June 26, 1987, 698. This enthusiastic reading of the novel identifies Simpson as a member of the “hyper-realist” school of fiction. Beevor appreciates Simpson’s attention to detail, finding the depiction of the paradoxes of American culture fascinating. He assures the English reader that Anywhere but Here is a special, not a typical, example of the great American novel.

Flower, Dean. “Anywhere but Here.” Hudson Review 40 (Summer, 1987): 321. Flower takes the title of his review of several contemporary novels from his personal favorite. He compares Simpson’s novel to, among other works, A Summons to Memphis (1986), by Peter Taylor.

Heller, Dana A. “Shifting Gears: Transmission and Flight in Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here.” University of Hartford Studies in Literature 21 (1989): 37-44. The theme of escape is a concern of this study. Heller also focuses on mother-daughter relationships and on the nature of desire in the novel.

Kakutani, Michiko. Review of Anywhere but Here. The New York Times, December 24, 1986, p. C16. This review analyzes the effectiveness of Simpson’s characterization of Adele and Ann, as well as the effectiveness of Lillian and Carol’s intertwining narratives....

(The entire section is 405 words.)