I find it almost as interesting as I do disappointing when people aren’t familiar with Mona Simpson or her work. Maybe you know her as the younger sister of Steve Jobs, who she did not meet until she was 25, and for whom she wrote a moving and eloquent essay. And if that doesn’t jog your memory, maybe you’re familiar with The Simpsons character named after her: Homer’s long-lost mother, Mona Simpson. Certainly those are points of interest, but what’s most important to know is that there are few American fiction writers who write characters as unforgettable as Simpson’s, and there are even fewer who explore bizarre family dynamics like she does.
Her latest novel, Casebook, is out tomorrow. Although there are critics and commenters who will tell you the world doesn’t need another coming-of-age story (my opinion is that the world doesn’t need another bad coming-of-age story), even they should make an exception for Simpson’s new book. Any person who grew up in a family being slowly torn apart by their parents’ crumbling marriage will instantly relate to 12-year-old Miles Adler-Rich’s attempt to understand why things are falling apart. Casebook will even find a way to sink its hooks into readers who haven’t had to experience that.
You might know Simpson’s debut, 1986’s Anywhere But Here, better as the 1999 film of the same name starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman that it spawned. But like a million other cases I can think of, the book is far greater than the film. When a New York Times critic called its main character “the most exasperating, insupportable and credible mother-daughter duo to make their presence felt in recent fiction,” she meant it as a compliment. With delusional Adele uprooting her daughter in hopes of living some fantasy life in Los Angeles, Simpson gave us one of the most unforgettable books of the 1980s.
Although it shouldn’t be what convinces you to read her books, Simpson’s own backstory does illuminate her fiction. Her biological father, Abdulfattah “John” Jandali, was out of her life before she was ten years old. After her mother remarried, Simpson took on the last name of her stepfather. Add to that the famous brother she didn’t meet until she was 25 years old, and Simpson’s own biography could make for an intriguing book. But instead of one book focusing on her life and relationship (or lack thereof) with her father, Simpson has filtered many of her own experiences and feelings into fiction in a way that becomes more and more apparent the more you know about her. The absent father is a recurring theme throughout many of her books. 1992’s My Lost Father is an obvious example, but if you want to get to know Mona Simpson, her third novel, A Regular Guy, is the best place to start.