Review: A boarding school whodunit fueled by feminist rage

“Commitment,” by Mona Simpson (Alfred A. Knopf)

Mona Simpson’s latest novel “Commitment” is a minimalist masterpiece, exploring the large and small ways that a diagnosis of mental illness affects a family. In a story utterly devoid of car crashes, murders, abductions and explosions, Simpson bears down on the truly important questions about life – home, work, love and family.

At the center of the novel is Diane Aziz, a single mother struggling to raise three kids on a nurse’s salary in Los Angeles in the 1970s. She has lied to get them into an exclusive public high school in the Pacific Palisades, and it has paid off big for her two older children, Walter and Lina.

When the novel begins, it is 1972, and Walter has just enrolled at UC-Berkeley. Soon after that, Diane spirals into a deep depression and is admitted to a state mental hospital. At that point, her best friend, Julie, a colleague at work, steps up to take care of Lina and younger brother Donnie.

Lina, who is still in high school, works at an ice cream parlor to help pay the bills and dreams of going to college “back east” with her swanky girlfriends. Donnie, a charmer who lacks the academic skills of his older siblings, falls into an aimless life of computers, comic books and hanging out on the beach, where he eventually develops an addiction to drugs.

Throughout the novel, Simpson excavates the multiple meanings of the word “commitment,” seemingly daring us to consider whether the state-run institutions of the past were in some ways more humane than the community-based treatment that was meant to succeed them. She also reflects on the ordinary meanings of the word, including the commitments we make to our friends, families, employers and selves.

Simpson, who was born in 1957, grew up in LA and went to Berkeley. California is her territory, and the events of this novel take place during the formative years of her life. She captures time and place with uncanny precision and the compression of language characteristic of a poet.

So, it seems entirely fitting that the novel begins with a heart-wrenching lyric of the Beatles – “Once there was a way to get back home” – and ends with a haiku by the 17th century poet Basho: “An autumn night – don’t think your life didn’t matter.” “Commitment” makes the case in a quiet but insistent voice that our lives do matter, even if other people think they are broken.

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