Book Review: Mona Simpson’s “Commitment” — E for Effort

By Drew Hart

Another installment in the author’s portraits of everyday struggles — and this one is a long-winded, shaggy affair.

Commitment by Mona Simpson. Knopf, 406 pp., $30.

Time was — well, in 1980 anyway — a story about ‘ordinary people’ in America told of some comfortably upper middle-class suburban family and their attendant problems. Robert Redford won an Oscar for a movie about that? On the heels of Updike, Cheever, and Richard Yates, this was a standard depiction of modern society back then — it was so Waspy in those days! The screenplay for Ordinary People was written by Alvin Sargent, who took on another project twenty years later (before, um, lapsing into Spider Man stuff) — examining a struggling mother-daughter relationship, Anywhere But Here, in which things were markedly more dysfunctional, reflecting a sea change in the culture. It was based on a debut novel by Mona Simpson, which met with acclaim and was followed by several others of a similar flavor.

That’s a roundabout way of getting around to introducing Simpson’s latest effort, Commitment, for sure — but there’s a method to the madness, since this tale has such a roundabout quality itself. Another installment in the author’s portraits of everyday struggles — some of which are autobiographical to an extent, often touching on single parenting, stray fathers, perhaps a newly discovered lost sibling (in her case, Steve Jobs) — this is a long-winded, shaggy affair and maybe a lesser outing.

Tracking a period spanning the 1970’s and 80’s, Commitment offers up a proud and determined but struggling Los Angeles family, consisting of a divorcee and her three children. Of Afghan roots, they are living somewhat on the edge, a deadbeat dad having flown the coop. Diane supports her kids as an itinerant nurse, but before long she is stricken by a nervous breakdown that sends her to a state hospital. Walter, the oldest son, has designs on a medical career; he graduates from the Pacific Palisades high school his mother has snuck the three into, since they can’t afford to live in the district, and attends Berkeley on a shoestring of scholarships and gifts, ultimately deciding his real path is in architecture and commercial real estate design. Middle child Lina has an artistic bent, and with the help of a high school teacher, she parlays it into studying at Barnard, becoming a modestly successful painter and sculptor. The youngest, Donnie, has the most difficult fate; left to his own devices after his mother’s hospitalization, he wanders out of college into drug abuse and struggles to find his way back to stability through a 12-step program. Eventually he and his brother are recycling old buildings into new shopping centers together. Through it all, the family remains devoted to one another, always scraping by in threadbare moments, constantly in touch and support, coming to the rescue even when it requires sudden hitchhiking journeys or transcontinental plane rides. Until it concludes, a bit arbitrarily, with the death of Diane, commitment is the dependable theme of Commitment.

There is, arguably, a question about how long you yourself may stay committed here, however. Ordinary people these characters may be, but possibly too much so — this story rambles on to potential annoyance. It’s filled with minor characters we can’t keep track of or care about. Plot turns often don’t matter much, or they’re thick with contrivance — many hinge on guardian angels who step in to help (bending over backwards!) and seem unlikely. Love interests are insubstantial, even in the later pages when marriage takes place; one deeper, unrequited relationship has an eleventh-hour twist — a rendezvous between Walter and a lifelong crush — that’s squandered? Atmosphere isn’t especially developed — set in L.A., Berkeley, New York, with a side trip to Paris that’s basically phoned in — senses of place are minimal. (Another recent novel of the Southern California working class, Susan Straight’s Mecca, is far more evocative.) Historical and period details — references to pop songs, politics, Vietnam — feel inserted and not supportive.

Okay – is your F.C.* being too hard on this go-round? Your mileage could vary; it would probably depend on an interest in mental health and rehabilitation, an aspect that is fairly well drawn. (Even though here, while so much material focuses on treatments for depression and drug use, there’s very little to explain how they became necessary…) Maybe if there’s a taste for 19th-century realism, for Charles Dickens, for (yikes!) Horatio Alger, you will make more out of it. Simpson is said to have taken six years on this, and one cannot dismiss it out of hand. Perhaps the grade is ‘E’… for effort —

Drew Hart is the *F.C. – ‘faithful correspondent’ – writing from Santa Barbara, California


  1. Margaret Kerr on May 11, 2023 at 11:53 am

    I really appreciated this review. Other reviews seem to hold their fire, perhaps out of respect for who this author used to be. I read the book because I was an admirer of Mona Simpson’s earlier writing, but this book was simpy tedious. The characters, it seems to me, are poorly drawn and, overall, too good for words (as in Saint Julia, the never-complaining rescuer of chidren of mentally ill mothers ). The book was hugely overlong, full of basically meaningless detail and vast numbers of unmemorable ancillary characters. Honestly, I’m sorry I wasted my time on it.

  2. Phyllis Diehl on July 9, 2023 at 4:06 pm

    I just finished the book. It was a struggle. Too much minutia. The beauty of the book is the commitment of the three children.
    There love for each other…and yes, their commitment to their mother. I cried at the end for the beauty of siblings, the love of family and the support and commitment of the three children.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts