By Mona Simpson

(Knopf, $25.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Mona Simpson is the author of many well-regarded novels, including Anywhere But Here, The Lost Father, A Regular Guy, Off Keck Road, and My Hollywood. Off Keck Road won the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize, and Simpson has also won a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Lila Wallace–-Reader’s Digest Writers Award, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A faculty member at UCLA, she also teaches at Bard College.

Simpson has a fascinating personal history: she was born to an American mother and a father from Syria, who had had another child before they married. They later divorced and Simpson took her stepfather’s last name. She did not meet her brother, who had been given up for adoption, until she was 25, and they became close friends.  You may have heard of him: his name was Steve Jobs.

What is this book about?

It’s a book about divorce, seen from a teenage boy’s vantage point, and also about trying to understand love and its impermanence. Here is what Simpson told an interviewer about her latest novel:

“Casebook is about boy named Miles and his best friend, Hector, who spy on Miles’ mother as the family is falling apart. It’s a mystery and it’s also my attempt at a love story. Maybe love stories are all mysteries.

“I’ve tried to give some of the vivid pleasures and discontents of romantic yearning, with its intermittent satisfactions. But at the same time that the book is about love, it’s also about watching love, seeing signs and scraps of it and learning to recognize its force, that it exists and that you can’t control it, that it could hurt you, before it’s even a possibility that you might find it for yourself. Before any of its pleasures are available to you.

“The central question [Miles and his sisters] face from the divorce and from the mystery in this book and its resolution is what position romantic love should have in their lives. Will they live driven by suspicion? Or will they trust the high notes, the lures?

“I don’t think that their parents’ divorce benefits Miles or his sisters; it’s a fact of their life and in understanding the sorrow and confusion it causes them, they eventually gain depth, and an acceptance of different, equally vivid realities. They grow up anyway.”

Why you’ll like it:

Simpson is a thoughtful writer and one who captures the way a young boy feels and thinks in this story. She is divorced, as were here parents, and she has a visceral understanding of how marriage and divorce affect children. Miles is a  developed character with a compelling story to tell, and Simpson gives us his story through graceful writing and powerful storytelling, focusing on the events of his life while also examining larger themes of love and loss.

What others are saying:’s Best Book of the Month, April 2014, review says: “Miles Adler-Rich is a snoop. He admits as much on page one. It starts innocently–eavesdropping, a hidden walkie talkie, a secret phone extension–then expands into digging through drawers, computer files, and email. This likeably sneaky boy is nine when we meet him, and his world is crumbling. His parents split, his mom begins dating an allegedly wealthy “dork” who lives across the country, and then Miles, his mother and sisters–known as Boop One and Boop Two–must move to a new home, outside LA, which he learns is a rental. Miles’s accomplice in spying is his best friend Hector, whose parents have also divorced. Together, the duo uncovers more than they bargained for–about their parents, their parents’ friends, and especially about the loving but evasive boyfriend of Miles’s mom. After discovering love notes, credit card receipts, and even a “sex diary,” Miles realizes, “Espionage had a life of its own. Secrets opened to me when I wasn’t even looking.” Coming-of-age is an oversimplification for this rich and lovable story. Miles is a confused little dude, and learning about his parents’ grown-up woes only adds to his confusion. At one point he joins a gay and lesbian club at school, mainly to torment his homophobic father. But then Miles thinks: maybe I am gay. When some dark truths are finally, inevitably uncovered, Miles and Hector launch themselves into a hilarious revenge mission involving stray cats and dogs. Yet, after their insatiable curiosity leads them to a private investigator, Miles begins to fret: “We’d gone too far.” And looking back on the Sherlock Holmes books and the binoculars he received as gifts, Miles wonders, “Does everyone finally want to be caught?”

Says Publishers Weekly’s starred review: “Simpson’s sixth novel portrays a Santa Monica, Calif., family through the eyes of the only son, Miles Adler-Hart, a habitual eavesdropper who watches his mother, Irene, with great intensity. From an early age, Miles senses the vulnerability of his mother, a recently divorced mathematician, and throughout his childhood and adolescence feels the need to look out for her. When Irene falls in love with Eli Lee, Miles is highly suspicious. He enlists his best friend, Hector, to help him look deep into Eli’s background, going so far as to work with a private investigator. Simpson elevates this world of tree houses and walkie-talkies not only through Miles’s intelligence—“‘Hope for happiness is happiness,’” he tells Hector—but through the startling revelations he uncovers. Simpson tastefully crafts her story in a world of privilege, with private school, show business jobs, and housekeepers all present, but never prevalent details. More remarkable is Simpson’s knowledge of her characters, which is articulated through subtle detail: we are not surprised by the flea market blackboard in the kitchen, nor by the preachy quotation Irene chooses to write on it. Ultimately, this is a story about a son’s love for his mother, and Simpson’s portrayal of utter loyalty is infectious.”

“Simpson’s story unfolds with magnetic force. . . . She handles the passage of Miles’s crucial years through and beyond high school, including awkward relationships with two girls, with finesse. From beginning to end, it’s clear that in everything he does, Miles loves his mother. His indisputable, powerful, and consistent filial love gives ‘Casebook’ enormous emotional power and makes the surprise ending a heart-breaker,” says The Boston Globe.

“The heart of the book is simply the story of an emotional coming-of-age.  Simpson’s novel is at its strongest in the quiet, unadorned gray areas where Miles’s childhood neuroses and tender loving impulses for his family mingle painfully with his desire to face up to the truth. . . . It’s the poignancy of a child coming to terms with the irreversible losses and ill-judged compromises of adult life that gives emotional weight to the narrative,” says The Huffington Post.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A child of divorce turns private eye in the latest well-observed study of domestic dysfunction from Simpson (My Hollywood, 2010, etc.). . . The setup is ingenious on a couple of fronts. First, making the tale a mystery adds a dose of drama to what’s otherwise a stock plot about upper-middle-class divorce. Second, Miles’ snapping to the role of secret eavesdropper and researcher underscores how alienated he is from his mother’s confusion and heartbreak. Simpson presents Miles’ tale as slightly comic; this is a story of teenage misadventures, after all. But as the truth about Eli emerges and Miles gets wise to reality, she shifts into a more serious register. “Everyone had secrets, I understood, now that I did,” Miles explains. “With that one revelation, the world multiplied.” Simpson’s attempts to add a metafictional touch via Hector’s footnote comments feel half-finished, but overall her command of the story is rock-solid. A clever twist on a shopworn theme by a top-shelf novelist.”

When is it available?

“Casebook” is on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.


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