By Heidi Simmons
by Mona Simpson
It’s been said that if you are a child of divorce, then your marriage has a fifty-fifty chance of survival. Whatever the statistics, divorce can have lasting effects on all involved. In Mona Simpson’s Casebook, (Knopf, 336 pages) a boy discovers that more than adult relationships are impacted by the end of a marriage.
The story is narrated by Miles and begins when he is ten years old. He adores his mother. In his eyes, she is beautiful and smart. But like all good liberal-minded moms, she wants to control his activities by dictating what he can and cannot do. So, to get a heads-up on her plans for his life, Miles spies on his mother. In his first encounter, he sneaks under his parent’s bed to hear her conversation on the phone with her best friend.
As his mom and her friend discuss appropriate television for kids, Miles also gets to hear what happened on the last episode of “Survivor” – a TV program all Miles’ friends watch and talk about at school. But that conversation soon ends when his father joins his mother on the bed. Their talk becomes inappropriate for a child and the conversation quickly changes to a discussion about separation. Miles, even with a limited understanding of adult situations, begins to realize things are not what they seem and his mother and father are going to divorce.
Miles is oblivious to his family’s wealth and stature in the community. His mother is a mathematician teaching at UCLA and his father is an attorney working at a Hollywood studio. The family lives in a big house just blocks away from Santa Monica beach. They have a housekeeper who comes daily. Miles and his twin sisters attend an elite private school.
Wanting more information, Miles with the help of his best friend Hector, rig an old rotary phone so they can listen in on his mother’s calls undetected. Eavesdropping on a call, Miles learns both his mother and father have other people in their lives. The divorce is amicable.
But as time goes by, Miles’ world rapidly changes. He and his sisters meet their parent’s new “friends.” His father lives with Holland, a woman from his office and his mother is dating Eli, who lives back east, or so he says. Miles continues to spy on his mother. Concerned only about his life, he goes through her dresser and email for clues about what will happen next.
The family dynamic rapidly declines as they can no longer afford their Santa Monica home and housekeeper. Miles sees his own father less and less and starts to respect and love his mother’s boyfriend Eli as a new father figure. Eli befriends Miles and makes wonderful promises about their future all together. Miles listens in as Eli tell his mom not to worry about money because he will provide for the family. In fact, he says he looks forward to having a teenage stepson and twin daughters. But as the years pass, Eli’s promises never come to fruition. Miles and Hector start to investigate Eli with the help of a private eye. They slowly uncover Eli’s lies. He is a complete and total fraud.
Faced with the crushing news, Miles feels responsible to inform his mother about Eli. He does anonymously and she is devastated. For the next several years she is depressed and on the brink of suicide. Miles hears her say she would do it if not for the kids.
In the course of his spying, Miles realizes his mother is not perfect and sometimes life is overwhelming even for adults. Everyone in his family is affected by the evolving relationships. Miles grades plummet, his twin sisters grow distant from each other, the family rituals disintegrate and their happiness together disappears.
Miles and Hector document their experience and create a graphic novel called “Two Sleuths” which becomes a big comic book seller. At 19, Miles finally gains control of his own life and stops spying on his mother.
Casebook is more than just a coming of age story. It is a story of a family’s survival after the brutal effects of marital affairs and divorce. Miles grows up learning some harsh and crushing lessons about love, relationships and life. He is damaged. Even though a child tells the story, this is not a Young Adult novel.
Author Simpson cleverly uses Miles as an unreliable narrator. Through his naiveté and misunderstandings, the reader gets the child’s point of view of the effects of divorce on kids. Over the course of nine years, Miles provides an inside look at his family’s demise, individually and as a whole. Although Miles may not fully grasp the unraveling world around him, the reader gets the bigger picture.
Miles’ mother suffers the most. It is her story more than Miles’. In fact, it is a case study of the pathology and vulnerability of a woman as she tries to rebuild her family, restore her love life and renew her happiness.
Simpson does a good job capturing the maturing voice of Miles and the twins. It is often said that children are resilient and fare better than adults in divorce. Casebook provides another perspective, everyone is greatly effected and no one survives unscathed.