Helen Simpson is a master stylist who can elevate seemingly commonplace situations into vivid commentaries on the contemporary life around her. Her portraits of young women, career women, and especially married women with families are realistically evoked and resonate far beyond the individual characters. She has no need to preach; the sharp details of her protagonists, their intimate thoughts, and their dialogues with those around them create and convey their own reality and meaning.
Getting a Life, when first published in England, was titled Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, and the difference in tone in these titles foreshadows the response of reviewers. Some see Simpson’s women characters awakening, acknowledging, and understanding clearly the limits imposed on them, recognizing that even if they may not find immediate individual solutions they are products of larger societal forces intent on keeping women in such roles. The women are struggling to claim or reclaim their own lives. It is no accident that in the story “Getting a Life,” one of the longest in the collection, it is a male, indeed a boy under seven years old, who has already picked up enough cultural indoctrination to snap back at his mother, when she tells him that she wants him to eat his carrots, “Hey yeah right get a life!” then marches off to watch television. Other reviewers, less sympathetic to these women and their dilemmas, also respond with the more sarcastic “get a life,” implying that these women deserve misery since they caused it, or at least continue it. For that matter, these reviewers imply, they probably do not actually have unsatisfactory lives, and are ungrateful, self-indulgent whiners.
Helen Simpson is sharply aware of these opposing positions and all that is in between them. Appropriately, the first story in the collection, “Golden Apples,” portrays Jade Beaumont, a self-absorbed teenager finishing the school year and determined to flit through the coming summer and her entire life, “careering round like a lustrous loose cannon,” for after all, “[c]hoice landscapes and triumphs and adventures quivered, quaintly framed there in the zigzag light like pendant crystals on a chandelier.”
Never will she become like her mother, she thinks, always flustering around to keep the family functioning, working outside the home as well, unable to relax, boring, and dead inside. Besides, just two weeks ago she had forgotten to get petrol for the car. No wonder Dad is like he is, Jade grumbles. Dreamily walking along, pleasuring at these reflections, she encounters a child screaming and flailing on the sidewalk, her mother bending over her anxiously—the child had stuck a bean up her nose and the mother cannot get it out. Harried and distracted, the woman talks nonstop about the fixes the child gets into and the fact that she is going to be late. She begs Jade to try to remove the bean with some tweezers. Jade is fastidious and resentful. Call your husband, she says. He is not in town. Call Casualty. The woman already had. Find a doctor. The woman says she will do that next, adding that this year has been the hardest of her life. The little girl and the baby. Jade literally sprints away, but not before censoriously retorting that her mother has four children and a job.
“Café Society” shows two shattered women desperate to talk and establish some rapport, but little Ben constantly interrupts, throws and smears food, disrupts patrons (with retorts such as his loud “Witch!” directed to a woman with a wart on her nose), and generally behaves with “lunatic fervor.” The women will not even try to meet again soon. They have exchanged little more than two hundred words in that hour, just a few scattered fragments: it was more fun at work. . . . very long, the holidays. . . .
Dorrie, the mother in “Getting a Life,” is all too aware of what her three children are doing to her life. She knows that the few who see her at all register her as a gloomy woman who has grown rather fat, possessed by small anxieties, with no sense of proportion. Clearly that is the way her husband Max sees her. The story traces, in astounding detail, one day in Dorrie’s life, the day she and Max are to celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary. Dorrie is up with a child during the night and cannot go back to sleep, but she is grateful to have an hour when no one else is stirring. However, soon Robin, the littlest, comes into the bedroom, wanting attention, and although Dorrie cautions him not to wake Max, of course he does, and then Maxine and Martin...
(The entire section is 1877 words.)