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June 11, 2012

“Getting A Life”

by Anne Paddock

Several years ago, Helen Simpson published a collection of nine short stories called “Getting A Life.” Simpson, an English novelist is a master at writing about women overwhelmed with their lives as mothers – be they stay at home or working moms – and as wives to men who don’t think their responsibilities go beyond going to work everyday. At times hilarious – especially the scenes with children – but more often sad, the stories portray women in England who are trying to keep their lives, careers, and marriages together while raising children – not an easy feat.

In “Cafe Society,” two mothers – one with a toddler – try to share a morning coffee together but struggle to find a way to connect with each other when the child vacillates between braying like a donkey and throwing markers at the windows. And in “Getting a Life” and “Hurrah For the Hols” Simpson lays open the marriage between Dorrie and Max and the three children they had in the first four years of their marriage. Dorrie is dealing with weight gain, the demands of three young children, the housekeeping, and a husband who feels neglected and communicates his desire for her to return to work by telling her “You’ll have to start pulling your weight again.” And yet, Dorrie dreams of having another baby which most women who have experienced baby fever can understand on an emotional level if not logically.

In “Golden Apples” a teenager witnesses the troubled lives of mothers around her and vows she won’t have the same life. Simpson shows us the passion of Janine in “Opera” and how she holds it together fulfilling her duty to an ambitious and insensitive husband while trying to stay true to herself as she watches “Orpheus and Eurydice.” As the year 2000 approaches, we watch the lives of Cassie who has a constant ringing in her ears, and Christopher prepare for the “Millennium Blues.” The ties of friendship between Lois and Holly are felt when they both take a break from their families for a few hours to do some holiday shopping and meet for lunch in “Cheers.”

The short story “Burns and the Bankers” is a clever story and one that is especially appreciated by those who have experienced a “Burns Dinner” – a celebration of the life of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns held on or near his birthday, January 25th every year.  A Burns Dinner is not a typical dinner or gala and for those who have never attended this event or gone without knowing what the evening entails, it’s an eye-opening experience. If Bette Davis was in the room, she would repeat her famous movie line “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

The occasion is celebrated with men in kilts, a multi-course dinner, an abundance of whiskey, poem recitals, toasts, smoking, and the presentation of the haggis which is escorted to the dining room amidst bagpipes.  Haggis, for those that don’t know, is a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs all rolled into an intestinal covering that resembles a dead armadillo on a silver platter. The evening is long and seems to never end. My husband and I attended a Burns Dinner in Madrid and had no idea what we were invited to so when I read “Burns and the Bankers” about a woman who has her carefully orchestrated life compartmentalized in billable 15 minute segments, reading about her seven painful hours at a Burns Dinner was hilarious.

Wurstigkeit” is the name of an exclusive women’s clothing boutique in which two women – Laura and Isobel – lose all rational control of themselves to the passionate draw of impractical but luxurious clothing, pieces that doesn’t fit into their high-powered careers at the office or as under appreciated mothers at home.

Simpson is a talented short-story writer who is able to convey women “on the edge” ever so artfully. She deftly describes the domestic life so many women live as a result of the decisions they’ve made. Despite people telling women they can find a balance between work and home, this collection of short stories says otherwise.

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