This is a love story: Mona Simpson’s Casebook

imagesIn an interview conducted by David O. Russell at UCLA’s Hammer Museum, Mona Simpson said of her new novel Casebook, that she had been trying to find a way to tell this love story for a long time. It wasn’t until she landed on the idea of telling the story through the lens of her teenage narrator that she was able to write the romance that is Casebook.

I wanted to write this love story … but I couldn’t write it full on. – Mona Simpson

Whoa whoa whoa. A love story?

Clearly Simpson is the expert on the text and I’m just some Schmoe who read her book while sitting in a deck chair and sipping glass after glass of Rioja. But would we call this a romance?

I re-read the first half of the book after watching that interview and still have a hard time characterizing the fraught relationship between “the Mims,” the mother of our narrator, and Eli, the man who spends the whole novel deceiving her, as a romance.  My complaint is not that Simpson didn’t write an account of the relationship of the Irene and Eli that rings true; my complaint is that I don’t believe that Eli could ever have loved her. Am I wrong here or is Simpson? Is she too romantic or am I too cynical?

We’ve already established that Simpson is the expert so let’s put the question of romantic love aside and talk about the rest of the book.

Before watching the Simpson and Russell interview I would have characterized Casebook as a coming of age story or a family saga. Following our narrator Miles as he grows up and watching his affection and sense of responsibility for his sisters grow is a pleasure. Miles turns into a man and with his manhood comes a need to take care of his family and a need to guard his mother’s happiness. And how precarious that happiness is! How in need of protection. The New York Times published two reviews of Casebook and neither was especially positive. One said that the intimacy of the family setting felt too staged but it was these family moments that felt the most real to me. The despair of Irene as she worried about her children, then about her relationship, and then about the affect of her relationship on her children.

“I can’t even kill myself because the children”

That despair feels pretty real to me.

‘Coming of age’ is now enough of a cliche that I hate to use it in relation to a book I so loved but Miles literally comes of age before our eyes and Simpson handles his move from boyhood to manhood with grace. We’re not reminded constantly of the passage of time or of the children growing up it just happens as it does in life. There is no one with a horn and a sign announcing ‘you have reached a milestone.’ Growing up is a bit-by-bit process until suddenly you’re a different person.

Critics be damned, Casebook gets five out of five Hemingways (our first here at Red Brick Reads!). Despite what I think about Eli’s feelings (or lack thereof), the novel has not a word out of place.

 

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