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Casebook: A novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 15, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, April 2014: 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?” --Neal Thompson
A Conversation with Mona Simpson
Q: What is Casebook about?
A: 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.
Q: What inspired you to write about a family after a divorce?
A: What I want to find, through fiction, are answers to the ancient questions of how to live: What is a good life? What choices do people have? How can they, wherever they happen to find themselves on the economic ladder, find beauty and meaning?
I think the family is the base of everything. When Henry James published What Maisy Knew (his novel about a family coming apart) a little more than a hundred years ago, the divorce rate in the United States was 7%. Now, it’s closer to 50%. Marriage is no longer until death do us part, and fictionally, there’s no way to make that come out right. What we’ve lost is permanence, the forever after of fairytales. If a man sleeps with a young woman in Shakespeare or Cervantes, you know that by the end, he will have been tricked into marrying her. Divorce is sometimes unavoidable, we know, yet for ourselves and our children, we don’t want it. We don’t want even that weird modern almost-oxymoron, a good divorce. For ourselves and our children, we want Jane Austen love. We want permanence. Rightness.
Q: What do we learn from Casebook about how children respond to divorce? Are there ways in which the divorce benefits Miles and his sisters?
A: The central question they 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.
Q: Why did you decide to write from a young boy’s perspective? How did you get inside his head?
A: This book started for me with the boy’s vantage. I thought of it as a door open only one small wedge. I wanted to limit the love story, to set in within a family, within a larger life and among people whose main concern was not the lovers’ happiness. I have a boy, I love a boy, and though in most of the central parts of this novel, he’s not represented, I’ve used his lingo, his friends’ diction and slang and some of the games they played. 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.
Q: What were the challenges of writing about divorce from a child’s perspective, rather than a parent’s? What can we learn from Miles that we wouldn’t learn from an adult narrator?
A: In my life, I’ve been the person watching lovers more than I’ve been one of the lovers myself. Does everyone feel that way? That we watch love? That we aren’t usually the lovers ourselves. (Maybe that’s why love feels like such an absolute mandate when it is finally your turn.)
I needed a filter for the love story and I wanted a fairly naive one. We have all kinds of cultural assumptions about parting that we absorb: People get hurt. It’s no one’s fault. He or she is a grownup. I wanted someone young enough and uncool enough to emit a gigantic roar of WAH when he feels pain.
Q: Miles and his best friend, Hector, embark on a mission to find out more about Eli. They even hire a Private Investigator. Why does Hector insist on doing this?
A: They want to nail down the truth. They are at an age when they still believe that all the nuances of love can be subjected to a true/false paradigm, one of good/evil. Yet as much as they want that kind of a game, they are shocked to discover actual lies, actual evil in the adult world.
Like many mysteries, this one started out with something external, but was finally driven by a deeper compulsion that even Miles himself doesn’t understand.
Q: Miles joins a school’s LGBT support group with no fear that other students might think he’s gay. What were you saying, if anything, about Miles trying to discover his own motivations (sexual and otherwise)?
A: Miles finds himself in a situation many heterosexuals find themselves in. For most of the time covered in the book, though his sexual desire settles on a female, his closest and most daily relationship is with another boy. It’s an interesting syndrome. In many heterosexual marriages, despite sex, the two parties find themselves most engaged, most juiced, most intricately involved with other people of their own gender who are involved in their central project—for many men, that’s work, for many women, childrearing.
Q: Casebook makes readers think about how well we really know our parents. How do parental secrets impact who we become, and the decisions we make as adults?
A: I think very few people understand their parents as much as they’d like to. Often, by the time you know what you want to ask them, it’s too late. I think secrets impact everyone and usually terribly. National secrets, family obfuscations, most secrets.
Q: You tend to be reticent in interviews about the extent to which your fiction borrows from the details of your life. Why is this? Does your fiction borrow from your life? Should writers draw on their own personal lives as fuel for their fiction?
A: My fiction uses life only when life is better than what I can make up. I think writers should draw on everything for their fiction—their lives, the lives they know through reading and from being in the world and the vast realms of the imagined, by which I don’t only mean the fantastic.
Much of what is called realism in fiction is highly imagined. It’s life with a soft deep light inside it.
More About the Author
Her work has been awarded several prizes: a Whiting Prize, a Guggenheim, a grant from the NEA, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a Lila Wallace Readers Digest Prize, a Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, a Pen Faulkner finalist, and most recently a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
She worked ten years on My Hollywood. "It's the book that took me too long because it meant too much to me," she says.
Mona lives in Santa Monica with her two children and Bartelby the dog.
Top Customer Reviews
Miles is a sort of modern Holden Caulfield, transported to California. He’s confused about sex and he doesn’t always have the best instincts, but he’s honest (eventually) with himself and his friends. He adores his pretty mathematician mother, whom he calls the Mims, and is in awe of his handsome, boyish dad, a lawyer who works at a movie studio. He refers to his younger twin sisters as Boop One and Boop Two, but over time they individuate for him, and the three siblings become close. And there's a large supporting cast of friends all around. Ben Orion, a private investigator who befriends the boys, turns out to be a positive influence.
The knot of the story is in the Mims’ relationship to a new boyfriend, Eli, a seemingly injured man who works for the National Science Foundation in Washington. Long before she sees them, Miles and Hector note and investigate cracks in Eli's story. The truth, when finally outed, literally breaks the Mims’ heart.
Simpson’s storytelling adroitly captures everyday family life—the expectations and disappointments, the pressures and the pleasures. Although I’ve never lived in LA’s posher suburbs, I felt that I understood how life there might be experienced. And although I’ve never parented a teenage boy, I came to love Miles like one of my own.
Two small criticisms: There are a few too many tertiary characters here, and the ending feels a little rushed. Next time out, how about a hundred more pages?
I am one that takes issue with child protagonists. I do not appreciate the wise and omnipotent children that live in so many great works of fiction. I even had issues with "Scout". Seriously. So when I read that the star of Mona Simpson's latest would be a teenaged boy, I was disappointed. But, Mona Simpson is one of the few authors that I read regardless of her subject matter. I would NEVER skip a Mona Simpson release. I reluctantly forged ahead. I am so delighted to be able to report that Miles very pleasantly surprised me. Miles is not omnipotent or wise. He is a short, puffy, smart but not all that motivated, KID. He is struggling with his burgeoning sexuality and finds his sisters to be a constant source of annoyance. He loves his best friend, Hector, the way most children love and treasure their closest friend. Hector is the most substantial presence in his life.Read more ›
What begins as an innocent attempt to learn more about Survivor, young Miles, aided by his best friend Hector, rigs make-shift spy 'equipment' in his home, in order to eavesdrop on his parents, but more particularly, his mother. He only sets out to learn enough about the show, so that he can discuss it with kids at school, but he soon discovers that his mother has more pressing issues to vent about. He overhears the tail end of his parents frustrations with the other, which then swiftly leads to every child's worst nightmare: divorce. Now he has two homes, and his parents have wasted little time in finding replacements for each other. Eli is the new presence in his mother's life..but can he be trusted? Miles and Hector seem to think not, and the pair embark on a sleuthing journey like no other, to find out exactly what it is Eli is all about. In the end, what will Miles discover? About not only the loved ones in his life, but more importantly, about himself?
Casebook is essentially a story within a story, as the book is made to read through the eyes of Miles' best friend, Hector. Who has re-written it, and added his own footnotes along the way. It was such, that ideas seem to pop out of no where, and names were thrown around in all of it's forms.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I have loved Mona Simpson's previous books but had a hard time with this one. The story is told by Miles, a teenage boy and what you read is essentially what goes on in his head. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Christine Long
Wonderful surprise of a book! My first by Mona Simpson, who "channels" a teenage boy's emotional evolution amidst shifting familial ground realistically and insightfully... Read morePublished 5 months ago by E-Shopperina
Miles Adler chronicles his family's life, divorce from adolescence into adulthood in this perceptive and poignant novel of love, infidelity, siblings and best friends, with a touch... Read morePublished 7 months ago by MarC
Casebook is a coming-of-age novel with a twist. There's no animal with whom the kid is bonded and no traumatic event. Read morePublished 9 months ago by Susana S. Herbert
Mona Simpson takes us inside the mind and machinations of a boy whose parents are divorcing. He turns himself into a very clever detective, eavesdropping in a variety of ways on... Read morePublished 9 months ago by Alan L. Chase
I can't say I've ever read a book that begins with a nine-year-old boy hiding under his parents' bed in order to eavesdrop on them. Read morePublished 10 months ago by P. Mann
Miles has a new hobby: he spies on his mother. He and his friend, Hector, listen in on phone conversations, go through her drawers, and even read her emails. Read morePublished 11 months ago by Sandra
I had high expectations for this novel, based on a starred review in Booklist, and having been an Amazon book of the month last year. Read morePublished 11 months ago by Sue Hodge