Mona Simpson Simpson, Mona - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Anywhere but Here (novel) 1986

The Lost Father (novel) 1991

A Regular Guy (novel) 1996

Off Keck Road (novel) 2000

Sven Birkerts (review date 11 January 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Boundless Love: Sometimes Mother is Another Word for Smother,” in Chicago Tribune Books, January 11, 1987, p. C6.

[In the following review, Birkerts offers a positive evaluation of Anywhere but Here.]

In the opening scene of Mona Simpson's Anywhere but Here, 12-year-old Ann August stands at the edge of a flat Western highway, watching with growing panic as her mother's white Continental turns into a dot on the horizon. Car and mother will reappear, but only after the girl is convinced that this time they are gone forever. For Adele, the mother, is an engineer of histrionic effects: she is willing to put Ann through the terrors of abandonment again...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Elizabeth Ward (review date 1 February 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Two Women in Search of the American Dream,” in Washington Post Book World, February 1, 1987, p. 7.

[In the following review, Ward offers praise for Anywhere but Here.]

Strong-minded young women have been a staple of American fiction since at least Louisa May Alcott; Willa Cather, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers and Ellen Gilchrist, among others, have all contributed to the forging of a kind of feminine Huck Finn tradition. Now, making a very impressive debut as a novelist, Mona Simpson adds an original character of her own to the line. Yet Ann August, vital as she is, generates only half the novel's energy; for, as the opening sentence (“We fought.”)...

(The entire section is 985 words.)

Dean Flower (review date Summer 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Anywhere but Here,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XL, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 313-22.

[In the following excerpt, Flower offers praise for Anywhere but Here.]

Fine as [Peter] Taylor's novel [A Summons to Memphis] is, there's an even better book to put everything aside for and read at once: Mona Simpson's long, funny, racy, passionately detailed study of an ambitious mother who drags her daughter off to Hollywood to seek the American Dream [in Anywhere but Here.] Adele is a fugitive from the Midwest, a place called Bay City, Wisconsin, and a veteran of two reckless marriages (one to an Iranian college professor, the other to a sleek ice-skating...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

Mark Lambert (review date 17 September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Adele Goes West,” in London Review of Books, September 17, 1987, pp. 19-20, 22.

[In the following excerpt, Lambert offers a generally positive assessment of Anywhere but Here, but concludes that the novel falls short of the depth and complexity that Simpson aspires to reach.]

Mona Simpson's Anywhere but Here might seem in one respect a common sort of first novel: it is a book about an intelligent child growing up with a troublesome parent. In fact, though, it is evident almost from the beginning that this is a book which does not aim merely to tell a personal story well. One senses the ambitiousness of this book, a wish to matter, to take an...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Wyn Kelley (review date Fall 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mother's Curse,” in Partisan Review, Vol. LVI, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 683-86.

[In the following excerpt, Kelley finds shortcomings in the structure and narrative voice of Anywhere but Here.]

In all these first novels (except for Rope-Dancer, a short-story collection [by M.J. Fitzgerald]) by women, the sins of mothers—and their sorrows—are visited upon their children. Each female protagonist has to escape her mother's power in order to discover her own. But that struggle necessarily involves, as each woman faces maturity herself, some conflicted understanding of her mother's sufferings and mistakes. Ambivalence about the past runs deep in these...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Bettina Berch (review date Winter 1991-92)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Lost Father, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 2, Winter, 1991-92, pp. 56-57.

[In the following review of The Lost Father, Berch finds flaws in the novel's repetition and lack of focus.]

The Lost Father, by Mona Simpson, which might have been titled The Lost Daughter, is the story of Mayan Stevenson's search for the father who abandoned her. Nothing else in her life—her career, her relationship—will go forward until she can solve this mystery of who her father is, where he is, and why he left her.

That this effort, which consumes thousands of dollars and miles, does not seem unjustified is some...

(The entire section is 346 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 9 February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Daddy Fixation,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 9, 1992, pp. 3, 7.

[In the following review of The Lost Father, Eder praises the novel's “rich human comedy,” but finds shortcomings in the protagonist's narrow self-examination and the book's excessive length and slow pace.]

Chase after the white whale and you can end up with tuna fish. The young narrator and protagonist in Mona Simpson's second novel bleeds her life into a search for her runaway father; until she finds him, and he's nothing special.

If life is a journey rather than a destination, a single-minded purpose becomes an evasion. That is the theme. The...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

Judith Timson (review date 16 March 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Life Without Father,” in Macleans, Vol. 105, No. 11, March 16, 1992, p. 54.

[In the following review, Timson offers a generally favorable assessment of The Lost Father.]

American writer Mona Simpson set a high standard for herself in her extraordinary first novel, Anywhere but Here (1986), a powerful, quirky story about an erratic mother and the emotional pain she inflicts on her young daughter in their nomadic life together. In her new novel, The Lost Father, Simpson, 34, burrows deeper into that pain, offering another remarkable, if more uneven, story about the daughter, now grown up, and her relentless attempt to fit another piece into the...

(The entire section is 806 words.)

Carolyn Cooke (review date 13 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Pater But No Familias,” in Nation, April 13, 1992, pp. 494-96.

[In the following review, Cooke offers a positive evaluation of The Lost Father. Drawing attention to the novel's archetypal quest theme, Cooke concludes that the novel is “a beautiful, original chronicle of a woman-odyssey rare in literature.”]

My mother never lost her faith in men, but after years, it became more general. She believed a man would come and be my father, some man. It didn't have to be our original one, the one we'd prayed to first as one and only. Any man with certain assets would do.

In this...

(The entire section is 1545 words.)

Antony Beevor (review date 22 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Victim of the Times,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 22, 1992, p. 28.

[In the following review, Beevor offers a favorable assessment of The Lost Father.]

Mona Simpson has a lot to live up to after the success of Anywhere but Here (1987), a modern American Bildungsroman, which also jumped back and forth across three generations. The Lost Father is the sequel to that story.

In the first novel, the adolescent Ann is taken from the security of her grandmother by her reckless mother, Adele. The two of them set out from Bay City, Wisconsin, for California, by road. Adele has set her heart on Ann's becoming a child...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

Jonathan Coe (review date 23 July 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Beautiful People,” in London Review of Books, July 23, 1992, p. 22-23.

[In the following review of The Lost Father, Coe commends Simpson's “marvelously accomplished” writing, but concludes that the novel is excessively long and burdened with tedious digressions.]

It might seem a rather obvious point to make at the outset, but two of these novels are extremely long. Long novels make specific demands on our patience and attention, and in the end this can hardly help translating itself into a claim for their own importance: both Brightness Falls [by Jay McInerney] and The Lost Father constitute invitations to spend at least ten or...

(The entire section is 1281 words.)

Robert Phillips (review date Autumn 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Making Sense of What Takes Place,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XLV, No. 3, Autumn, 1992, pp. 491-98.

[In the following excerpt, Phillips offers a favorable assessment of The Lost Father, though notes that the novel is hindered by repetitious description.]

“I know of almost no pleasure greater than having a piece of fiction draw together disparate incidents so that they relate to one another and confirm that feeling that life itself is a creative process,” John Cheever wrote in one of his letters; “that one thing is put purposefully upon another, that what is lost in one encounter is replenished in the rest, and that we possess some power to make...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 6 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Money Can't Buy You Love,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 6, 1996, p. 2.

[In the following review of A Regular Guy, Eder finds shortcomings in the novel's flat characters and tenuous plot.]

Tom Owens, a laid-back bio-tech whiz kid, has parlayed a home-made experiment with artificial proteins into the Genesis Corp., employing 1,000 people and listed on the Fortune 500. Tom, a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs-like fictional character, made a vast fortune; 50 of his early employees and former friends became millionaires.

The “former” is a key. As in her previous novels, The Lost Father and Anywhere but Here, Mona...

(The entire section is 1227 words.)

Jonathan Bing (essay date 4 November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mona Simpson: Return of the Prodigal Father,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 45, November 4, 1996, pp. 50-51.

[In the following essay, based on an interview with Simpson, Bing provides an overview of Simpson's life and writing, and shares Simpson's comments about her work.]

Mona Simpson's three novels are unsparing portraits of daughters neglected by incompetent parents. At 39, the tables have turned and the novelist is a parent herself, sharing her capacious Upper West Side apartment with her son, Gabriel, who is almost three, and her husband, Richard Appel. Three years ago, in a coincidence as improbable as it is apt, Appel abandoned his job as a...

(The entire section is 2135 words.)

Judith Timson (review date 25 November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Family Ties, Family Lies,” in Macleans, Vol. 109, No. 48, November 25, 1996, p. 124.

[In the following review, Timson offers an unfavorable assessment of A Regular Guy.]

American novelist Mona Simpson has produced some extraordinary writing about the pain that difficult or delinquent parents can inflict on a child. In her first novel, Anywhere but Here (1986), she brilliantly captured the raw emotional life of an erratic mother and her vulnerable daughter, while in her second, more uneven book, The Lost Father (1992), she portrayed a distraught young woman in search of the father who had deserted her. Now, in her third novel, A Regular...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Wendy Brandmark (review date 21 February 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Going Around in Circles,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 21, 1997, p. 21.

[In the following review, Brandmark offers an unfavorable assessment of A Regular Guy.]

Tom Owens is “a man too busy to flush toilets.” A rich entrepreneur who gives his biotech companies biblical names, a potential politician who wants to shake up the state school system, he is so legendary that people gossip about his girlfriends with the same awe and titillation which the ancient Greeks must have felt when they described Zeus’ affairs with mortal women. In his arrogance and power, his belief that he can ignore the moral code of ordinary people, he resembles two other...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

Margaria Fichtner (review date 1 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Off Keck Road, in Miami Herald, November 1, 2000.

[In the following review, Fichtner offers a positive assessment of Off Keck Road.]

Out where the four-lane highway narrows, where the malls and groomed subdivisions fade into trailer parks, canning plants and salvage yards, the little cluster of buckshot-scarred mailboxes is the landmark to watch for, the spot where you slam into low gear and turn off into Keck Road. Anyone who grew up, as this reader did, in the 1950s in a not-so-big town of Chevy-dealership and feed-store ambitions, remembers a place like this. Whatever you called it, Keck Road always meant boxy houses surrounded by...

(The entire section is 1003 words.)

Alan Cheuse (review date 26 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Two Short Novels That Vary in Their Breadth and Depth of Focus,” in Chicago Tribune Books, November 26, 2000, p. 1.

[In the following review, Cheuse offers a positive assessment of Off Keck Road.]

The short form doesn't always go hand in hand with the long view. Short novels usually focus on a particular incident or scene and treat it with more fullness than a short story does, adding characters, investigating immediate situations at greater depth. But when they explore in time what they compress in length, the results can sometimes be spectacular.

In her latest work of fiction, the accomplished Mona Simpson chooses time over length, and...

(The entire section is 659 words.)

Michael Frank (review date 26 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Unexamined Lives,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 26, 2000, p. 5.

[In the following review of Off Keck Road, Frank commends Simpson's presentation of female bonds and social constraints, but concludes that the author attempts too much in a short space, resulting in a work that is underdeveloped.]

With Off Keck Road, her new novella, Mona Simpson makes a notable departure from the big, bulky, vibrant novels that established her as an individual and compelling voice in contemporary fiction. In this triad of books—Anywhere but Here, The Lost Father, and A Regular Guy—Simpson produces a contemporary version of...

(The entire section is 1019 words.)

Mona Simpson with Michelle Huneven (interview date 29 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Joys and Sorrows of Staying Put,” in Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2000, pp. E1, E8.

[In the following interview, Simpson discusses the themes and characters of Off Keck Road]

More than a year ago, in the middle of writing her fourth major novel, Mona Simpson, 43, took some time off to write a novella, Off Keck Road.

She sent a draft to her editor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon, who wanted to publish it on the spot. Simpson wasn't so sure; the novella was a departure from her other books in both size and subject matter, and she'd been planning to include it in a collection of shorter works.

Fisketjon wasn't so...

(The entire section is 2086 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Abissi, Colette. “Novel Explores Love's Ambiguities.”n New Directions for Women 16, No. 3, (May-June 1987): 14.

Abissi offers a positive assessment of Anywhere but Here.

D'Erasmo, Stacey. “Life Is What Happens to Other People.” New York Times Book Review (12 November 2000): 14.

A review of Off Keck Road in which D'Erasmo comments on the brevity of the novel, and compares it to earlier works. D'Erasmo also discusses some of the possible themes and intentions related to the shortness of the book.

Duffy, Martha. “Papa Was A Gazillionaire.” Time (4 November 1996):...

(The entire section is 503 words.)