- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

There's no shortage of stories about motherhood and marriage, singlehood and women-in-the-workplace. Popular magazines for women cover the same territory in nonfiction pieces that feed female fantasies of personal and professional perfection but seldom stimulate. So it's a pleasure to come across three recently published collections of short fiction that include clear-eyed stories about women (and their men) that are unsentimental, often comic, and a refreshing antidote to the earnest self-improvement content of women's magazines.
British writer Helen Simpson chose a passage from Leo Tolstoy to introduce her third collection of short stories, Getting a Life (Knopf, $22, 196 pages), — published in Britain under the sassier title of "Hey Yeah Right Get a Life"): "She had grown stouter and broader, so that it was hard to recognize in the robust looking young mother the slim, mobile Natasha of old days … Now, often her face and body were all that was to be seen, and the soul was not visible at all." The description certainly fits the hapless Dorrie, who appears in two of the nine linked stories, and who, since the arrival of three children in the space of four years, "had broken herself into little pieces like a biscuit and was now scattered all over the place."
In the title story Dorrie drags herself and the children through a day of domestic horrors that ends with dinner in a restaurant to celebrate her eighth wedding anniversary. Over the years, she has gained weight but lost all self-respect. She can't even enjoy her rare night out, complaining to husband Max about the babysitter's fee of four pounds ($5.60) an hour: "It's like sitting in a taxi." This sad sack of a family also stars in "Hurrah for the Hols," a hilarious account of their summer vacation with Dorrie "slumped round-shouldered in the middle of the family encampment of towels, impatience on a monument growling at the sea. Or was it Mother Courage of the sand dunes?"
While the author retains a core of sympathy for overweight and overwhelmed mums like Dorrie, she suggests, in "Burns and the Bankers," that high-powered career women fare better than the stay-at-homes. Nicola Beaumont, a corporate lawyer with four children, farms out the scut work of motherhood and at Christmas, disdaining to cook a turkey, flies the whole family off to Lapland. "Granted," she recalls, "it had been a nightmare to pack for, with the nanny back off to Sheffield on Christmas Eve … but still it had been amazing. All that snow, and the children had adored the sleigh ride with Santa's elves."
Nicola's smug holiday reverie relieves the tedium of a banquet sponsored by a group of Scottish bankers in honor of the poet Robert Burns. This business entertainment (an oxymoron if ever there was one) features an appalling haggis washed down with Scotch, a toast to "The Lassies" and speeches by numerous Burns-besotted Scots, "blowhard old windbags," in Nicola's estimation. The author has acquired a loyal following in her native England for two previous collections; this one should bring her recognition in America.

Erika Krouse introduces each of the 13 stories in her first collection Come up and See Me Some Time (Scribner, $22, 202 pages) with a Mae West quip, some familiar, others less so: "I'm single because I was born that way," "I've been things and done places," "I used to be Snow White but I drifted." These pithy quotes go well with the author's own wisecracking style, but don't be misled; she is a serious writer.
In "The Husbands," Maggie, the narrator, is irresistibly drawn to other people's husbands, including those of her sister, her best friend, her coworkers. "I guess I do it because I'm only good at being different," she muses. "I'm the one that's not the wife, not remotely the wife." Maybe not, but Maggie discovers that she is the sister.
In "Impersonator" the first-person narrator befriends Anna, a fellow office temp. Gradually they become more than just friends partly because Anna is so much more interesting than the narrator's boy friend. Finding her answering machine more communicative than any man she's ever dated, Anna wants "to invent an answering machine that'll throw sultry come-ons at me when I walk through the door—'Hey, baby, you look like something I dreamt up last night, great legs, give me a little sugar and by the way, you have three messages."
The author's quirky humor enlivens all her stories. A new mother holds up her baby "like it was an Oscar." A Chinese restaurant owner who makes his own fortune cookies calls them Misfortune Cookies and stuffs them with messages like "You will meet a tall, dark felon."
In "Too Big to Float," the narrator, Lois, flies to her stepfather's memorial service and falls in love with the plane's pilot. The feeling is mutual but the author upends the received wisdom that it's men who are afraid to commit. Imagining the future, Lois is paralyzed by her fear of settling down: "We fall in love and have children. Then I get all Feminine Mystique-ish and unhappy when he stays out late and I'm stuck baby-sitting … [he's] sleeping with a stewardess anyway. Then—what? We get counseling? Divorce? Do we risk it, or do we just walk away?"

Carolyn Cooke's first collection of short fiction, The Bostons (Houghton Mifflin, $12, 180 pages) is the darkest of the three, and her women characters tend to be older if not wiser than the twenty- and thirty-somethings portrayed by Helen Simpson and Erika Krouse. The title comes from the name residents of a coastal Maine town give to summer vacationers from the big city, and the author observes the foibles of both groups — from dirt-poor to Boston Brahmin — in nine interconnected tales.
The title story introduces the Sargents, an aging couple preparing to leave their Boston town house for Frog Pond Village, a retirement community where nearly everyone they know lives "in apparently merry fellowship." We also meet their daughter Ruth, who 10 years before left her husband and two daughters and fled to San Francisco with a woman. Her daughters survive this loss; both become successful attorneys and "overall Ruth is glad she bolted and broke away, or else she would certainly have thrown herself into the river, and what would the girls have done with that?"
In "Trouble with Money," a husband splits from his socialist wife, taking their son but leaving behind their invalid daughter. After he departs, money dribbles in, never enough for a bank account or a car, but the abandoned wife buys escargots with food stamps "remembering my old hero Emma Goldman who said everybody has a right to beautiful and radiant things."
"Twa Corbies" describes a day in the life of an odd, but oddly endearing threesome: the widowed narrator, Billy, who is visiting his brother Tad and his twittering, theatrical sister-in-law, Gay. We soon learn that Gay had once written a play, but after her husband nearly died in a drunken fall nothing came of it. Fortunately none of that — "Gay's yearnings, her lost life —" is mentioned. Billy relates that "For years Gay had sold tickets at the Colonial Theatre, where she learned to ape the exaggerated gestures of actresses, and dress like a floozy." Their conversation limps along; Tad is mentally out of it since his fall and the none-too-swift Billy cannot match Gay's brittle, bitchy witticisms.
Those who imagine that the lives of aging people are without drama would do well to read "Twa Corbies," a small masterpiece of black humor that includes two narrow, if temporary, escapes from death.

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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