(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Mona Simpson has earned a reputation as a writer who explores the relationships of members of families who struggle in the aftermath of divorce or other situations in which the father leaves the family. She writes about unusual family structures and problems that exist in relationships between parents and children. Her writing is filled with insights into these troubled families as she describes domestic scenes in realistic detail. She describes the characters’ experiences with vivid images and stark details. Although the stories are not autobiographical in content, she draws on her own family background for feelings and insights.

In her work, Simpson combines the minimalist style of Ann Beattie with Anne Tyler’s insights into family life. She portrays characters involved in real-life situations who have faced heartbreaking crises yet have found the courage to go on with their lives. Her female protagonists emerge with scars inflicted on them by incompetent or indifferent parents and manage to survive, even thrive. As she tells her stories from the first-person point of view, her young narrators show the pain they have suffered, the longing for a normal family, and finally their acceptance of their lives.

The theme of the lost father dominates Simpson’s short fiction. Whether the men die, divorce their spouses, or abandon their families, in one way or another the women are left to care for themselves and their children. The mothers are often inept or poorly equipped for the responsibilities of parenting, forcing the young narrators to strike out on their own to create lives for themselves.

“What My Mother Knew”

Emily, the narrator of “What My Mother Knew,” is a young woman living in New York, struggling to establish a career in acting. At her mother’s request, she and her brother and sister have flown to California for a visit. After her father died when Emily was a baby, her mother, Elena Hanson, struggled to support herself and her children. Her mother has always dreamed of having a beautiful home, but she could never afford one. Now, at age fifty-nine, she tells her children that she has a surprise for them and drives them to her home in Pacific Heights, a place where Emily says the rich people live. She thinks that the brick house on the hill is the most beautiful house she has ever seen.

When her children question her, Elena admits that she has leased the house for only one year. As she enjoys the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, Emily admires the music and furnishings and can see that her mother has made every attempt to create a beautiful home for this reunion. As they raise their glasses in a toast, Emily sees the secret in her mother’s eyes: She is dying, and this is her last attempt to create the illusion of a happy family life. In a flashback, Emily remembers that when she was twelve years old she was looking through her mother’s dresser and found evidence that her mother had been selling her blood for money. Emily finally recognizes how difficult life has always been for her mother, and the two women share an embrace of love and understanding.


Melinda, the story’s protagonist, lives alone with her mother, Carol,...

(The entire section is 1332 words.)