Diane is admitted to Orchard Springs, an enormous hospital that appears to have been dropped onto its parklike campus “without any apparent plan.” One might say the same of “Commitment,” which has a meandering, aimless vibe until around Page 75. Simpson lingers for a bewilderingly long time on the minutiae of Walter’s life, then dips briefly into Lina’s (she’s 16, a junior on the honors track at Pali High, a school Diane got her kids into using the address of a woman she met at exercise class). Donnie, the youngest, is twice neglected — first by his mother, then by Simpson, who mostly ignores him until much later in the book.
But once Diane is in the care of a decent doctor, the path of “Commitment” becomes clear: It’s a survival story. Walter, Lina and Donnie will have to figure out how to take care of themselves. Sometimes they’ll be OK; sometimes they’ll flounder. Occasionally they’ll function as a team, but mostly they’ll adopt a solar system model, orbiting the sun (Diane, no matter how long she’s absent from their daily lives) while being steadied on their axes by Julie, who is the moon. A cynical reader might find Julie’s selflessness too convenient; I found it inspiring and wanted to know more about her. Instead I learned a lot about Thomas Story Kirkbride, the Quaker psychiatrist who believed that airy, well-lit hospitals could have a curative effect on patients. He was interesting too.
Simpson seems to have unlimited time and pages as she follows Walter, Lina and Donnie into adulthood, through graduations and first loves and soul-crushing jobs, from Los Angeles to New York City, into the realms of architecture and art and parenthood. Walter and Lina build their adult lives around the creation and destruction of beauty, as if the chance to exert control over a sculpture or a building might make up for the unsteady foundation of their family life. Simpson has clearly done her research on the development of the Pacific Palisades and on the gallery scene in Manhattan in the 1980s, among many other topics, and the fruits of her labor add texture to an already hefty story.
Donnie’s trajectory is less obvious than those of his siblings. He floats where the wind takes him; “trouble became his natural habitat,” Simpson tells us. Of course, “everyone in high school had found out what happened to his mother. He’d never told, but they knew. Girls wanted to talk about it, their voices pitying, hands eager.” When Donnie’s drug addiction becomes too big to ignore, the Azizes finally have to do the work they’ve avoided for so long. The therapy-speak is mine; Simpson would never be so heavy-handed. Her language is subtle to the point of coyness, with an arm’s-length quality that’s equal parts impressive and maddening.