Mona Simpson 1957-
American novelist and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Simpson's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 44.
Simpson debuted on the literary scene with her first novel, Anywhere but Here (1986), an emotionally complex mother-daughter story that captured the attention of a large readership. In this and subsequent best-selling novels—including The Lost Father (1991), A Regular Guy (1996), and Off Keck Road (2000)—Simpson examines the dynamics of families and the effects that difficult, neurotic, or absent parents have on the lives of their children. Her works focus on adult characters who refuse to grow up and children who mature too quickly and are emotionally scarred by lack of parental guidance.
Born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Simpson later moved to Los Angeles with her mother after her father, a college professor originally from the Middle East, abandoned the family. Years later, Simpson learned that she also had an older brother, Apple computer founder Steve Jobs. (Jobs was adopted as an infant and did not learn of his relationship to Simpson until he was twenty-seven years old.) Simpson graduated from Beverly Hills High School and earned a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, where she received a B.A. in 1979. Throughout high school and college, Simpson excelled academically, wrote poetry, and experimented with other forms of artistic expression. Following her graduation from Berkeley, Simpson worked as a journalist for various newspapers in the San Francisco Bay area. She left California in 1981 and moved to New York City to accept a scholarship to the graduate writing program at Columbia University, where she studied with authors Elizabeth Hardwick and Edmund White. She graduated in 1983 with an M.F.A. Leaving New York, Simpson applied to Yaddo, a writers' colony in Saratoga Springs. She had written her first draft of Anywhere but Here while at Columbia, but it wasn't until she revised the novel at Yaddo that she finally submitted it to her literary agent. Simpson also wrote short fiction, some of which was included in Best American Short Stories 1986, The Pushcart Prize XI: Best of the Small Presses, and 20 Under 30. With the 1986 publication of Anywhere but Here she received the Whiting Writers' Award, as well as a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Two years later she received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship and Hodder fellowship. The Guggenheim subsidy allowed Simpson to resign from her position as senior editor with the Paris Review, which she had held since graduating from Columbia. While working on subsequent novels, Simpson regularly contributed short fiction to such periodicals as Harper's, Iowa Review, North American Review, Paris Review, and Ploughshares. In 1995 Simpson married Richard Appel, a public prosecutor who later resigned his position and began writing for animated situation comedies. Simpson and Appel have two children and divide their time between New York City and Los Angeles.
Simpson's first three novels are all concerned in some way with displacement and with the pain and confusion that children feel when their parents are not committed to their needs. Though she eschews the term autobiographical, portions of Simpson's work reflect her own experiences. She writes about various incarnations of the American dream (and how easily it can become the American nightmare), as well as the impact that absent fathers and neurotic mothers have on their daughters. Anywhere but Here describes the torturous, emotionally abusive relationship between twelve-year-old Ann August and her mother, Adele. After Ann's father abandons the family, she and her mother leave the family home in Bay City, Wisconsin, and head for Los Angeles, ostensibly so that Ann can become a child television star. Simpson complicates and enriches the story by weaving Ann's grandmother's and aunt's voices into the narrative. The novel plays on several uniquely American motifs—the start of a new life in the West; the flight from stultifying Midwestern values; the belief that possessions give life meaning. While Anywhere but Here depicts a mother-daughter relationship, Simpson's next novel, The Lost Father, describes Ann's devastation after being abandoned by her father and her disappointment following their reunion. A direct sequel to Anywhere but Here, The Lost Father tells the story of Ann's determination to find her father and discover why he left, in the hope that she can understand why she was unwanted. Ann is twenty-eight when the novel opens and has adopted her birth name, Mayan Atassi. Separated from her mother for ten years, Ann is a gifted medical student in New York City; she is also suffering from anorexia. Her search for her father becomes an obsession, taking her across the United States and to his native Egypt. She finally finds him in California and discovers that he is nothing like the man she imagined.
Simpson focuses on another absent father, Tom Owens, in the ironically titled A Regular Guy. A brilliant scientist and entrepreneur, Owens is skilled in genetic sequencing and starts a string of successful biotechnology firms, becoming a multimillionaire before he is thirty years old. However, before he left for college, Owens had a brief affair with Mary, his high school sweetheart. Mary became pregnant with their child and has been drifting from one commune to another. Her daughter, Jane, is born in Oregon, and by the time the child is ten years old, Mary can no longer cope with the responsibility of parenthood. Mary teaches Jane to drive a battered old truck, and sends her to her father with a note pinned to her jacket and seventy-five dollars in her pocket. When Jane finally finds him, Owens refuses to accept responsibility for her. He instead chooses to bring Mary to northern California, and provide her and Jane with a house and a living allowance. Simpson's fourth work, Off Keck Road differs markedly from her earlier novels in that it does not examine dysfunctional family relationships. The story deals with being rooted in a single place, in this case, a small town in Wisconsin, where the three lead characters—Bea, Shelley, and June—live constricted lives. The plot revolves around Bea, who returns to Wisconsin from an advertising career in Chicago to care for her aging, crippled mother.
Critics have admired Simpson's work for her skill with language, poetic images, and finely honed prose. Literary influences on her style include Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, and Raymond Carver, and the domestic aspects of her work have been favorably compared to the fiction of Anne Tyler and Alice Munro. Anywhere but Here, Simpson's first novel, remains her most acclaimed work. The character of Adele August has been particularly praised for her complexity and her ability to inspire conflicting feelings in both her daughter and readers. Simpson's follow-up novel, The Lost Father, was criticized in many circles for its excessive length. According to reviewers, the book's length causes the protagonist's reveries and interior monologues to seem more self-absorbed than revealing. Furthermore, critics note that Simpson's prose is adversely affected by the incessant repetition of some of her most descriptive images in the novel. Still, many consider the novel to be a success due to Simpson's vivid writing and her moving portrait of Mayan. Simpson's fiction is primarily written from the perspective of a single character, and her novel A Regular Guy was criticized for its atypical use of distant, omniscient narration. The critical response to Simpson's Off Keck Road has been sharply divided. While some reviewers have regarded the work as insubstantial and uninteresting, others view it as a realistic depiction of women who came of age in the late 1950s.