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The best books on Family Stories

recommended by Mona Simpson

Family dynamics are changing dramatically in our modern, workaholic age. The novelist – and sister of Steve Jobs, separated at birth – selects five works of fiction that illustrate some truths about families in all their variety

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Why family?

Family has always been one of the top three subjects for the novel. What’s so riveting about it is that the values and the philosophical questions are always ancient, but at the same time it’s always new. That’s useful for the novel. The way we have and raise families now is very different from 20 or 50 or 100 years ago. It’s always providing new context. It makes it fresh for us while also giving us something to relate to, because it’s the way we all live our lives. It gives new opportunities to show characters and challenges under pressure.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of love stories, because I’m writing a novel that has to do with that. It’s interesting to see the different levels of reality in love narratives. Look at something like Jane Eyre. It’s immensely popular – on Amazon there are 980 reviews and they all loved it. If you look at Charlotte Brontë’s later work, the last novel she wrote is Villette. In a way it’s equally great, but it has just that much more reality in it. It has just 14 Amazon reviews.

What real family life is like is something you explore in your books, and I gather that you didn’t grow up in the conventional nuclear family.

The nuclear family is almost obsolete nowadays. I think around 45 to 50% of kids are raised in single parent homes, and in addition to that most women now work, one way or another. The whole ecology of the family has changed. That was one of the inspirations for [my novel] My Hollywood. There have always been nannies, but our generation is the first generation of middle class women who will sometimes have a nanny. It’s not the only option but it’s a popular one, because there is no public daycare for small children until kindergarten or first grade.

That brings forth a whole number of complex issues. In a traditional society there might be another caretaker – perhaps a grandmother or an aunt would live with the family and look after the children. But that’s a different matter. You can’t fire your mother, and there are different complexities in the relationship that comes to be when money is involved, or money comes into what people still like to think of as a family. So I found that very interesting.

I’ve always loved the idea of the extended family. Just mom, dad and the kids seems so limited somehow.

We all like the idea of aunts and grandmothers. Everyone loves that idea, and yet many people wouldn’t want their mother-in-law or their own mother to move in, or even to be there every day. It brings up questions like: Do you have the same authority? It’s a very different relationship. But in our society the vast majority of women now work, whether because of financial or emotional necessity. At the same time, the culture of child rearing has changed dramatically and men are working longer hours, particularly in the professional classes.

There’s a book that came out recently, Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett, comparing successful men a generation ago and the same jobs now. They used to work an average of 50 hours a week. Now they work 80.  Men are working more, women are working full time yet still, if you want the power company to come because your electricity is down, they come between nine and five. Society is riddled with contradictions. There’s also a culture of parents being much more involved in school, athletics and every aspect of a child’s life. So at the same time that parents are working more, child rearing has become a much more demanding profession. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Did you see that study that having three adults around might be better for children than just two or one? In that sense, having a nanny around might be good.

There have been many studies done, and it does seem that the more adults that children love and are close to, the better. Probably having four people around would be even better. Also, it’s interesting that it’s the mother we feel the need to replace not the father. People do have male nannies – I did for short periods of time. I have a boy and a girl, and when my boy was young I had a young man as a babysitter for a while. It was helpful for my boy, because he was quite active.

Let’s go through the books you’ve chosen. The first is The Sound of the Mountain by the Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1968 but committed suicide in 1972.

This is a book where the father does live with the family. I just love Kawabata. To me this is a beautiful book about middle age and old age. The thing I like so much about it is that each member of the family is going through a particular change or journey or revelation at the same time, and yet they’re not aware of each others’ struggles. They’re only glimpsingly aware and yet they live together in this home. It’s a beautiful evocation of how the family contains these separate missions.

Do you think that’s generally true of families?

Yes, but less beautifully so.

What mission is the main character, Ogata Shingo, on?

He’s accepting coming to the end of his life, and he’s accepting what’s left of life with its losses.

Do you think he is the author?

I don’t think he’s the author, no. Kawabata has written a number of other wonderful books too, and they are all quite different. Within a fairly patriarchal time in Japanese culture, I think he has an appreciation and a gentleness in his understanding of women.

In terms of the way family works in different cultures, I found the book quite fascinating too. The son and his wife live with them, and the son works with the father, but he often doesn’t come home with the father because he’s having an affair. It’s very awkward but nobody mentions it.

Nobody makes a big deal about it. And the father’s affection for the daughter-in-law is really a kind of selfless love. There’s another wonderful book of Kawabata’s worth mentioning too, PalmoftheHand Stories. They’re very, very short stories and quite lovely.

Let’s go onto your next choice, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. In this, the newly married couple, Edward and Florence, don’t last long enough to create a family.

What I love in this book is not even the main plot, though I like that too. What I really love, the family that is so fascinating to me, is his [Edward’s] family. The mother goes crazy, and her husband and children all accommodate it and live around it. I love that little world in the novel.

Yes, when he reaches a certain age he’s told she’s crazy, and it all makes sense to him. But before that, he didn’t even realise anything was wrong because they all acted as if everything was normal.

I love that. Also, even if we’re not crazy we all identify a little bit with the way the mother has these gusts of enthusiasm when she’s going to cook a big dinner or has piles of sheets to iron. She still has these images of what’s possible in her life and she’ll have these gusts, and yet they all know that it won’t really happen.

Does the story hold together for you – that the couple really love each other, but they mess it up on that wedding night and so go their separate ways? I’m pretty convinced life doesn’t happen like that. Normally it takes more than one night to really mess things up.

I agree with you, but I also don’t agree with you. When I was in high school I had a job at an ice cream store. There was a boy there who I liked, and at one point he asked me out to a concert. I was very excited, I hadn’t gone on any dates yet. We were moving to a new house, so I gave him my phone number and I got dressed and got ready, but he never arrived. He didn’t know where I lived, and he never called. I waited and waited and he never called. Finally, at eight or nine o’clock, it was clear I’d been stood up and I went to the ice cream store, just to hang out. He showed up later too, and seemed quite miffed. I didn’t understand, but it turned out that our phone hadn’t been connected yet. So I guess he had called and it rang and rang, and no one had answered.

Oddly, we never got beyond that. You’d think that I could have told him, we would have laughed, we would have gone again and everything would have been great – but that didn’t happen. But we were 16. I think it’s the kind of misunderstanding that makes a lot of sense when you’re 16. If we had been adults … But I’m not sure it was meant to be just a misunderstanding in On Chesil Beach. I think it was meant to be a deeper incompatibility which is glanced at.

Tell me about the collected stories of William Maxwell.

I absolutely love him. He’s one of our great short story writers. He’s very delicate, very mid-Western. He’s a predecessor and a great inspiration for Alice Munro. In this book there’s an interesting family story called “My Father’s Friends”. I don’t know whether his work is completely autobiographical or how much of it is fiction, but there seem to be a lot of dead mothers in his stories. I think his own mother died when he was young. And this is a great story, about how the narrator’s mother dies a few years apart from her sister.

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Both these women die and it’s about what happens to the two families afterwards. The narrator’s father gets a housekeeper. She is there for about a year and a half, and then he remarries and another order is established. The household remains running and cheerful and has some sense of normalcy. In the other family, the mother dies and the family never recovers. Years later, the narrator goes over one Christmas and it’s dark and a little depressing.

It explores the sense that we have these broad ideas about marriage, or a mother and a father – and yet those positions, the job titles so to speak, are completely different in different families. In the one case, the absence of a mother was just calamitous and catastrophic. We would say that’s unhealthy, but it also means she was more necessary and, in some ways, more loved. It’s a very provocative and interesting story.

My mother died when I was small, and I can see what he’s getting at. My father and I were probably more in the loved-her-too-much, never-recovered category. In some ways, anyway.

Did he remarry?

No, never.

In my daughter’s pre-school there was a family who I remember vividly. They hosted the welcome-to-the-school lunch. They had an older daughter who was at my son’s school and I said to the father, “Oh, what grade is she in?” He gave me this sheepish, charming smile and said, “You’ll have to ask my wife.” He didn’t know what grade his eldest child was in! Later his wife died in a car accident, and this man was left with three young children. He didn’t even know what grade they were in, and he was suddenly without a mother for them.

It was so sad but also kind of fascinating. He had a babysitter who was there for the summer or perhaps the year. She was a college student, probably 19. And she stayed. She just stayed, and has been raising these children. I also wonder what it means for her life. She’s probably 29 years old now, has lived with this family and is often the class mom. She’s very involved in the school, but I think she has no romantic life whatsoever.

I suppose the opening line of Anna Karenina, that all happy families are alike, turns out to be untrue.

It’s not true at all. All families are completely different. What I love about Anna Karenina is the secondary characters – not the Anna and Vronsky romance but her brother’s affair, that starts out the whole novel. Her brother Stiva is having an affair with a dancer and his wife catches him. He completely loves his wife, but he feels that she’s an old woman now – she’s had children, that can’t be helped, it’s not her fault, but he’s full of virility and how could he not be having an affair? It’s kind of wonderful.

Let’s move onto Proust and Swann’s Way. I have to confess I’ve never read this.

You have a treat in store – and of course there are many more volumes after Swann’s Way!

I thought, until relatively recently, that Madeleine was the name of a girl he liked.

There are several girls he’s into. It’s very much about love. It starts out with this beautiful evocation of his mother. It’s talking about parents who die and the weight that has. His whole life is very much in the context of a family. You see the character almost only in context of that significant family. It’s also a wonderful translation by Lydia Davis, who is a terrific writer and a great translator.

It’s so much about the role imagination plays in family life. He talks mostly about unrequited love but he’s also writing about the whole world, once he’s retired from life in a way. Proust was asthmatic and famously, in his forties, retired to a cork-lined room and just stopped going out. He received visitors there but stopped going out into the world. He felt that he had lived enough and he just wrote. So it’s suffused with a grandparent-like generosity towards everyone. He’s watching people’s extreme suffering and wishes he could give them his perspective.

Last, tell me a bit about the Virginia Woolf book, Jacob’s Room.

How can I talk to a British woman about Virginia Woolf? She is so large in all of our lives! What would female fiction be without Virginia Woolf?

Why does the book resonate with you?

As always with Woolf, I think it’s the extreme interiority. She picks out exactly the right details to reveal the character’s interiorities. And she’s very patient with the moments of life that would otherwise go uncaptured.

Are the family relationships strong in there?

They are. Perhaps the relationships aren’t as successful as in her greatest books, To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway, but they are awfully resonant. Jacob dies in the war, but the enormity is suggested more than extolled.

December 21, 2011

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Mona Simpson

Mona Simpson

Mona Simpson is a novelist and professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. She won the Whiting Prize for his first novel, Anywhere But Here. Simpson’s brother, separated at birth and then reunited thirty years later, was Steve Jobs. Her newest novel is My Hollywood

Mona Simpson

Mona Simpson

Mona Simpson is a novelist and professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. She won the Whiting Prize for his first novel, Anywhere But Here. Simpson’s brother, separated at birth and then reunited thirty years later, was Steve Jobs. Her newest novel is My Hollywood