Drab, elitist victimhood dressed up in glittery prose.

GETTING A LIFE

A third collection from Somerset Maugham–winner Simpson (Four Bare Legs in a Bed, 1992, etc.): nine bitter stories, many loosely interconnected, about upper-middle-class British women overburdened by family.

In “Golden Apples,” 17-year-old Jade wanders her suburban London neighborhood, scoffing at its bourgeois trappings and imagining how her life will be different She is particularly critical of her mother, a professional woman everyone else praises as “so amazing, what she managed to pack into twenty-four hours.” Then by chance Jade encounters the author’s first of many overwhelmed, overweight, falling-apart, stay-at-home moms whose intelligence is atrophying under the pressure of husbands and children. Listening to the despair of this unnamed woman, whose child has a bean stuck up her nose, Jade begins to appreciate her own mother’s elegant competence. Jade reappears only fleetingly in other tales, as babysitter or daughter, but her energy and blind hopefulness haunt the remaining pages, in which adult women lack anything resembling hope. Some can’t talk to each other, despite their shared experiences, because they have lost the ability to speak for themselves (“Café Society”); others, like Dorrie in the title piece, are so entirely dedicated to their families that they have no space left for self. The men are nonentities at best, and Simpson’s depiction of the children is even more disturbing. Considering their offsprings’ spoiled, whining, devouring natures, it’s no wonder Simpson’s mothers are miserable. (When Dorrie sees “the gleam in his eyes and teeth,” her son’s hungry, animal quality is apparent.) The several tales about working women offer no joy rides either. Jade’s highly efficient mother, Nicola, muses on her life with forced self-satisfaction during a long business dinner honoring “Burns and the Bankers,” while, in “Wurstigkeit,” two women sneak away from their professional lives for a secret, decadent shopping spree. But real happiness eludes them all.

Drab, elitist victimhood dressed up in glittery prose.

Pub Date: June 21, 2001

ISBN: 0-375-41109-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2001

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet
more