Hilarious, dark, and thoroughly entertaining, Getting a Life proves Helen Simpson to be one of the finest observers of women on the edge. Set in and around contemporary London, these nine stories explore both the blisses and irritations of domestic life.
An ambitious teenager vows never to settle for any of the adult lives she sees around her. Two old friends get tipsy at a small cafe and end up revealing more than they intended. In a boutique so exclusive that entrance requires a password, a frazzled careerwoman explores the anesthetizing effect of highly impractical clothing. And in the mesmerizing title story, a mother of three takes life one day at a time, while pushing the ominous question of whether she wants to firmly to one side.
"She had grown stouter and broader... and the soul was not visible at all." So reads the Tolstoy quote introducing this new collection of nine linked stories by British phenom Simpson (Four Bare Legs in a Bed), in which an army of exhausted mothers struggle through the millennium blues. "Golden Apples" and "Hurrah for the Hols" frame the collection. In the former, English lit student Jade Beaumont, set to dash off into life, is slowed down by a mother with a distraught child; the encounter leaves Jade even more determined never to be tied down. In the latter, Dorrie "Mother Courage of the sand dunes" is floundering in married life with Max and kids Robin, Martin and Maxine, brooding that "there must be something better than this squabbly nuclear family unit." In the title story, Dorrie appears again, shepherding her children through an ordinary but overwhelming day, with Jade in a cameo babysitting role. The uneven distribution of responsibility and respect in child-raising maddens Simpson's characters, but their devotion to their children is mostly unfailing. Stay-at-home mothers are well represented, but those who choose to keep their high-powered careers appear, too, apparently happier. In and around the domestic narratives, sharp vignettes of contemporary London life are inserted: "two shattered women" getting sloshed at a cafe and spilling the beans about family matters; a Robert Burns-themed mega-corporate gala night out; an expedition to a clothing shop so exclusive that its whereabouts are secret. Sharp-tongued and merciless, Simpson's stories of post baby-boomer personal politics approach satire, distilling into tight prose the terrible pressures on childbearing women in the 21st century.