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.)