A boy spies on his mom in Mona Simpson’s fresh new novel

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Casebook. </span>Mona Simpson. Knopf. 317 pages. $25.95.
Casebook. Mona Simpson. Knopf. 317 pages. $25.95.

Everyone does it: Listening in, overhearing on purpose — whatever you call it, eavesdropping is a common transgression. But for Miles Adler-Hart, a self-professed snoop and the juvenile protagonist of Mona Simpson’s captivating new novel, it becomes a way of life, how he interprets love and life from the sidelines while moving from boyhood to manhood.

In fourth grade when he begins listening to his mother’s phone conversations, he hears her discuss the TV show Survivor, the key to cool in his Los Angeles neighborhood. But he doesn’t stop there, listening to more conversations and searching her drawers, assuaging an itch to understand his mother, Irene the mathematician, and “nice enough looking, for a smart woman.” Touchingly, he notes “[t]here were so many holes in my knowing her,” and though his investigation of her personal life extends throughout high school, it’s rooted in deep appreciation.

But Miles’s intensive sleuthing comes at a price, starting with an uncomfortable, confounding entry into his parents’ troubled marriage. When Miles’s father tells Irene that “he didn’t think of her that way anymore either,” Miles is perplexed, but readers understand immediately. His youth allows for such moments of dramatic irony and much humor, especially when he involves his best friend, Hector, in his schemes. Yet as he grows older and the novel shifts its focus to Irene’s strange romance with the oddly elusive Eli Lee, Simpson retains all the cards.

A fictional note from the Neverland Comics publishing house anchors the story as Miles and Hector’s second collaborative book, and what are meant to be Hector’s footnotes layer on intrigue as to the accuracy of Miles’ first-person narrative. But all that feels extraneous. What’s most remarkable is how Simpson effortlessly snares readers inside a full, intimate world without ever having to act as interpreter. Miles’s interior language is easily accessed — the “Mims” is undoubtedly his mother, “the Boops” his twin sisters, and “Sare” his mom’s close friend — and real names seem unnecessary, though they eke out through dialogue. And though this carefully crafted world spans more than a decade, the novel’s pace is brisk, drawing a tight arc of Miles’ adolescence and his mother’s post-divorce reinvention.

Time passes subtly in Miles’ speech. He begins to swear and articulate his changing world in new ways, such as when he contemplates a parental reconciliation: “I could almost reach his feelings, but not quite; I was no longer that boy. I wasn’t sure I wanted my parents back together. I was used to things the way they were now. I’d already begun to be the man I would become.”

At childhood’s end, Miles eventually abandons his obsessions and realizes the world is bigger than the myopia of youth allowed: “Everyone had secrets, I understood, now that I did. With that one revelation, my world multiplied.” But for a few delicious days, Simpson allows readers to relish the innocence of childhood and the intense yearning to discover the secrets of life. That part, at least, never ends.

Christine Thomas is a writer in Hawaii.

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