Kirkus Reviews QR Code
GETTING A LIFE by Helen Simpson


by Helen Simpson

Pub Date: June 21st, 2001
ISBN: 0-375-41109-7
Publisher: Knopf

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.