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Getting a Life: Stories Hardcover – June 12, 2001

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st American ed edition (June 12, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375411097
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375411090
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 6 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,004,226 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


"In these subtly linked stories, and with prose that in its range of cultural and sensual reference is breathtaking and beautiful, Helen Simpson registers what is both laughable and lamentable in the lives of contemporary women. In her take on fin de siecle motherhood and work, she has elegantly updated and complicated the mad housewife fiction of previous decades and offered a bracing post-script to Bridget Jones. These stories are wonderfully composed in their irony and wrath. They are admirable and haunting." --Lorrie Moore

"Ms. Simpson writes with such emotional precision, such black humor and dyspeptic zest, that she manages to spin this unpromising subject matter into some wonderfully funny and disturbing stories that limn the middle- and upper-middle-class world of London (and its suburbs) with Waugh-like acerbity and wit. Ms. Simpson [has a] seemingly effortless ability to conjure up her characters' states of mind, [and] to describe emotions and moods with pointillist if sometimes hyperbolic detail."--Michiko Kakutani, New York Times

"…[B]rilliantly biting. [Her] terrain will remind readers of Fay Weldon's cursed and pleasant land, but Simpson's boil is more furious, her satire more surreal and Swiftian, her vision more end-of-tether violent. Simpson plants a surveillance camera inside darkest family life and describes the scenes with mordant comedy and lush, exact language...mesmerizing because of Simpson's precise observations of mood shifts and because of her extravagant unfurling of language."--Laurie Stone, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Some of the most sensitive, insightful and finely crafted stories I have ever read."
—Ruth Rendell, The Mail on Sunday

"It is the book's truthfulness that makes it both intensely tragic and intensely comic."
—A. S. Byatt

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Eileen G. on July 20, 2001
Format: Hardcover
These edgy stories deserve all of the editorial praise they have earned. Simpson's protagonists are smart married London women-with-children in their thirties. Several are well-paid professionals working in corporate worlds, and the rest used to, but are now home with young children. (Their good-looking husbands are not much part of the action of these stories.) These competent women are by turns cynical ("Stress! She could handle it. She positively enjoyed jumping in its salty waves." - from "Burns and the Bankers") and full of yearning - for connection, for sex, love, enough hours in the day, and - to their husbands' consistent dismay: even another baby.
Simpson's protagonists are most often outwardly composed and howlingly distressed. A day starts out like any other and quietly appalling (and wholly believable) events take place. The action is described acidly, accurately, and sometimes from several points of view.
Simpson's ability to turn a phrase wowed me, along with her pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. She can by turns describe a shopping trip, an evening at the opera, sexual disappointment, the inner life of a teenage girl, the weather, office politics, men in kilts, or intense emotional states in ways that left me breathless. This is a terrifically satisfying read.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By "israelpotter" on May 12, 2004
Format: Paperback
I brought the paperback of this book back from the UK and finally got around to reading it last month. It is simply one of the best-- funniest, best written, most trenchant, most important, most affecting-- story collections published in the last decade. Pretty much every story in it is about a thirtysomething woman with children; some of the women stay at home and have minds of mush, some of them have full-time jobs and are running high levels of frustration, guilt, or rationalization; all of them are an amazing and distinctive combination of real and repellent and attractive and flawed and sympathetic. Simpson's the real thing. I'm buying all her other books now. This one was published in the US but with its outstanding UK title rendered, dreadfully, as "Getting a Life." What were the US publishers thinking?
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Virginia Lore on July 29, 2002
Format: Paperback
Getting a Life by Helene Simpson is a less-than-luminously-literary-but-entertaining-anyway collection of short stories.
Most of the stories are centered around domestic life, meaning: there are a lot of stay-at-home-moms and struggling working moms in these stories, agonizing over their lost identities. I have to say that I strongly identified with this theme, and so may be rating this collection a little higher than someone else would, but Simpson really nails the mom thing. I found myself reading large sections out loud to my partner as my toddler pulled out all the toys I'd just put away.
In "Cafe Society" two mothers meet for conversation and a little intellectual stimulation. They are aware, writes Simpson, "that the odds against this happening are about fifty to one." Still, they persevere, and most of their conversation happens mentally as they wrangle the toddler. A couple of the women in the stories reappear in other stories, and I found myself hoping that Simpson would stick with just those women and wishing she'd written a novel about them.
Some of the stories, written around some themes having to do with the end of the millenium, seem a little dated. "Millenium Blues" is such a story, and probably should not have been included in this collection, both because the fears expressed already seem quaint and because the ending is absurd. Absurdity doesn't fit well with the rest of the collection, which is generally a diary of domestic life in its small details and despairs.
All in all, a light read, but a definite "don't skip" if you are a toddlerian (ie, you happen to have small children at home).
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Bohdan Kot on April 21, 2005
Format: Paperback
"Getting a Life," a collection of 9 short stories by British author Helen Simpson, speaks about the joys and pitfalls of domestic life for modern women. The feeling of perpetually riding up an escalator that never reaches the top haunts their soul, each woman begs for a break. They all hunger for solitude: a precious commodity for these over-run lives. The women dream, pine, scream for a life that is balanced - a husband who does his share, bosses who do not belittle them and a society that cherishes them for raising children.

The women push forward endlessly, but remain embedded in a quagmire they do not exactly love or hate, but mostly tolerate for now. Many of the characters seem surprised by their circumstances and cannot remember the time before they were labeled wife, mother and worker simultaneously. The self has been emptied via the energy drainers: husband, kids and the workplace.

Isolation resonates within each woman. This is most poignant in the short story, "Café Society." Two over-burdened women meet for a brief coffee afternoon break, but neither one is able to communicate the frustration or the ache each feel. Simpson beautifully captures the formal outward exchange and the inward silent pain unable to be released. The short story begins,

"Two shattered women and a bright-eyed child have just sat down at the window table in the café. Both women hope
to talk, for their minds to meet; at the same time they are aware the odds against this happening are about fifty to one."

The reader will cheer for the women in "Café Society" and all of Simpson's women characters as they struggle for an elusive freedom. But no quick-fix solutions are presented.
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