Anywhere but Here, 1986
The Lost Father, 1991
A Regular Guy, 1996
Off Keck Road, 2000
“What My Mother Knew,” 1982
“The Day He Left,” 1983
“You Leave Them,” 1985
“Victory Mills,” 1989
“I Am Here to Tell You It Can Be Done,” 1990
Although she has published several short stories, Mona Elizabeth Simpson is best known for her critically acclaimed novels. Her books are lengthy, lyrical explorations of the search for identity in America at the end of the twentieth century. Simpson’s narrators are lonely people, most often women, who as children were continuously betrayed by adults, physically and emotionally abused, and left to assemble an identity out of the fragments of their lives. Wounded and deprived of the rituals and processes of a daily family life, they survive by taking sometimes courageous, often desperate control of events: they steal, develop eating disorders, and put themselves at risk in dangerous situations and unfulfilling relationships.
Simpson, born to Syrian immigrants from Homs, grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a landscape that figures prominently in her fiction. She received her B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1979 and an M.F.A. from Columbia University in 1983. Her fiction has been supported by several literary grants and awards, including the Whiting Writer’s Award, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and by foundations such as the Corporation of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony. Simpson was an editor at The Paris Review during the 1980’s. Beginning in 1988 she was a Bard Center Fellow and a teacher at Bard College. She has also spent time in New York and Los Angeles.
Simpson’s first two novels, Anywhere but Here and The Lost Father, share the same narrator, although they have different names. Anywhere but Here chronicles the journey west of Ann August and her mother, Adele August Diamond. Although the voices of Ann’s grandmother Lillian, her aunt Carol, and her mother are interspersed between Ann’s chapters, the daughter’s narrative makes up the bulk of the novel, and she is the central consciousness. In The Lost Father Mayan Atassi, a medical student at Columbia University, embarks on a search for her father who left home when she was a child. The shared histories of Ann August and Mayan Atassi, and their similar voices, let the reader know that she is the same person, each novel detailing a different part of her life and her family history.
Adele August Diamond is a selfish, narcissistic person who convinces her daughter Ann that she has the potential to be a child star. She uproots Ann from home and family in Wisconsin and heads for Hollywood in a Lincoln that she essentially steals from her second husband. Adele becomes increasingly deluded, believing that she and Ann belong to the wealthy Beverly Hills neighborhood in which they settle, while she passes bad checks, pretends to be in the market for houses she cannot afford, and prepares for marriage to lovers who have no intention of marrying her. As Ann negotiates her complex relationship with Adele, the reader sees the frightening dependence of the mother/daughter bond, with its moments of beauty and terror.
Ann learns to wield what power she has, often playing the maternal role. Eventually, she lands a role on a television situation comedy, a part she wins by mimicking her mother. Ironically, the work allows her to make enough money to attend college on the East Coast and finally leave her mother. Although she never returns, her life with her mother has deeply affected the way she perceives the world.
In The Lost Father Mayan Atassi’s knowledge that she was unwanted by her father haunts her, preventing her from establishing enduring relationships with men, constructing a career, and creating an adult life. Convinced that she will remain emotionally crippled until she finds her father, she hires a detective, but eventually she takes up the search herself. As Mayan retraces her father’s steps and imagines his life, she reconstructs her own past, finding again and again the painful places inside where her father’s abandonment affects her. Both Ann August and Mayan Atassi’s journeys are inward voyages juxtaposed against their road trips in search of an ideal that ultimately does not exist. Once Mayan’s goal is reached and she finds her father, she realizes that it changes little. Finding him does not heal the wound of his absence. As she ultimately concludes, “I used to think, before I found him, that the sun or the moon had to be my father. And now I’m kind of back to that. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. But I am more like anybody else.”
A Regular Guy is another story of coming to terms with an absent father; however, while the father is literally absent at the beginning of the novel, he is soon found, but remains emotionally absent. The protagonist, Jane di Natali, is the daughter of mentally unstable Mary, who drags her daughter around the Pacific Northwest. When Jane is ten, her mother decides that she should go live with her father, Tom Owens, now a multimillionare biotechnology entrepreneur (critics noted that he bears a resemblance to Simpson’s older half brother Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computers, who had been put up for adoption as an infant and did not know his birth family until he was in his late twenties). Owens, however, will take financial responsibility for his daughter but nothing more; he gives Mary and Jane a house and an allowance, but his attention remains on his businesses. His relationship with his daughter does not begin to develop until his business fortunes begin to decline.
Off Keck Road, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, focuses on Bea Maxwell, an upper-class woman who never quite fits into the world, and her friendships with two women from Keck Road, which constitutes the wrong side of the tracks in Green Bay, Wisconsin. June Umberhum, a college friend, has come home to raise her young daughter, while Shelley is the last person in town to have ever contracted polio.