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Mona Simpson’s Casebook and The Bechdel Test

casebookMona Simpson’s new novel, Casebook, passes the Bechdel test.

Last night, thanks to Tamar Granor in my “Hot Off the Press” book discussion class, I learned about the Bechdel test, which comes from Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For” Strip.

A book or movie passes the Bechdel test if it:

  1. Has at least two women in it who
  2. Talk to each other and
  3. Talk about something other than a man.

Bonus points if the female characters have names!

Casebook is a story told by Miles Adler-Hart, who is nine at the beginning of the story, and in his early twenties when he is telling the story. Nine-year-old Miles very much wants to be allowed to watch “Survivor,” so he decides to eavesdrop on the conversation his mother Irene (Reen) is having with her good friend Sarah (Sare), to see if they plan to let their sons watch the show. What he learns from this and much subsequent (and complex) eavesdropping is that his parents are planning to get divorced. The book tells the story of the divorce and Reen’s later relationship with another man, Eli, all through Miles’ eyes.

Reen and Sare have a very close relationship and rely on each other to get through tough times and thorny issues, and they do occasionally discuss things other than men. Reen also has another friend, Marge, who, like herself, is a brainy mathematician, and they have many conversations about their work; in fact, they wind up working together and winning a major prize. So, Bechdel test? Check! How about the “is it a good book?” test? On that one we’re going to have to go with a “so-so.”

Mona Simpson is a terrific writer. I love her language, even if one reader in my class complained that it did not at all sound like it was coming from a teenage boy. I was willing to overlook that because I so admire the way she turns a phrase. Here’s one example:

“When we walked in the door that night, my mom looked happy and looser, the way she did around Eli, but our life didn’t feel as pure as it had been last year at this time, the way Christmas wasn’t after you learned it was just your parents, and almost nothing felt as right as at Little League when you were nine and the ball landed hard in your mitt.”

In addition to being an excellent writer, Simpson also (and this is completely tangential to the analysis of the story) has a very interesting bio. Her literary credentials are stellar: after getting an undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and an MFA at Columbia, she went to work for The Paris Review. Her many novels have won many prizes, and her first (and I think most popular), Anywhere But Here, was made into a film with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman.

Her parents divorced when she was young and she was raised by her single mother, losing track of her father. It turned out that her parents had had another child before Mona and before they married, whom they put up for adoption. Mona later found and became close with this elder sibling, who turned out to be Steve Jobs. And Mona’s husband, with whom she had two children and from whom she is now divorced, was a writer for “The Simpsons” and, as you will now figure out for yourself, used her name for the characters!

But I digress… In a Q&A with the author provided to me by the publisher, as well as in her talk at the Philadelphia Free Library this past May, Simpson discussed her goals in writing this story from the boy’s viewpoint. She says it is a book about “watching love, seeing signs and scraps of it and learning to recognize its force.” She believes that “the family is the base of everything,” and so she wanted to examine the dissolution, or perhaps I should better say the regrouping, of a family. She also says: “I wanted to limit the love story, to set it within a family, within a larger life and among people whose main concern was not the lovers’ happiness.”

One reviewer (on NPR) compared Miles to Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. The readers in my class did not like that comparison, one because she can’t stand Holden and another because she finds Miles infinitely more charming. But we found his voice to be inconsistent. Many, including myself, felt it took a while to “get into” the book, to get the rhythm of the writing and to enjoy Miles’ voice, and this may be because it took the writer a while to get the voice right. New York Times critique Michiko Kakutani says the novel “gets off to an extremely bumpy start, then builds slowly in its second half into a genuinely moving story.”

I found it be a very sweet story. I loved the way Miles cared for his mother. Simpson jokes about this, saying: “the boy I’ve created is, in some ways, a mother’s fantasy. Only a mother could dream up a boy who is obsessed with his parents.” But Miles experiences so much else and grows in so many ways over the years covered by the story, learning not only about love, but about friendship and even education, professional success, and community service.

As for the Holden comparison, I think it works in many ways. Miles is a boy coming out of a situation of failure (i.e. divorce), albeit not one of his own making, and, in the wake of that failure, he’s trying to find out what matters to him. Like Holden, he too seeks to avoid “phonies” and learn what makes for real and lasting relationships. Miles’ relationship with Los Angeles and its environs is also heavily woven into the story, as is Holden’s with New York. It’s not a bad comparison.

Author: Lynn Rosen

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