A woman's place?

DEAR GEORGE by Helen Simpson, Heinemann pounds 12.99
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ONE hallmark of a Helen Simpson short story is that she doesn't seem to like her characters much; they struggle like kittens under a heavy blanket of authorial malice. In her first collection, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, rich, reptilian Mrs Leversage tries to seduce a glum, beautiful young neighbour, but the story's final line, "You're going to be very sorry if you've damaged that necklace", skewers Jane's soppy victimhood just as much as it does Mrs L's greedy connoisseurship.

Dear George lacks the first book's wonderful grotesques; instead, it grimly plots the trajectory of female aspiration. In the title story, a blithely obnoxious teenager gets her come-uppance, but her actions - writing and rewriting a deceptively casual letter to a fancied sixth-former - signal the predominant theme of lust after illusion, just as the cover illustration features corporeal Io submitting to the vaporous embrace of Jupiter.

If the first story is a dreamy virginal fantasy, the second, uncharacteristically light-hearted, deals with rapturous teenage love. By the third, "Bed and Breakfast", where a young couple go off for their first weekend together, the serpent of moodiness has slid in. Things get worse: the older holidaymakers of "When in Rome" keep bickering about children; he wants them, she doesn't. The hugely pregnant subject of "Last Orders" (as if to underline her lack of autonomy, she doesn't get a name) waits painfully, a figure of fun and pathos, for her overdue birth. And we all know what kids do to your sex life: "The baby's densely packed pearly limbs, the freshness of the little girl's breath when she yawned, these combined to accentuate the grossness of their own bodies," Simpson writes of the weary parents in "Heavy Weather".

And so on and so on. Women with interesting jobs? Women who are anything other than bitter, mad or knackered? You won't find them here. It isn't until the last story that we break the chain of swelling, popping and withering broken and take up again the theme of writing. The apathetic members of a creative writing class find themselves chewing on all the old chestnuts of male versus female creativity: "I'll tell you why women writers are on a hiding to nowhere. They can't cut the mustard. They lack attack." Simpson's distinctive, witty similes remain a pleasure: "Tarquin [gave] his mother-in-law a symbolic embrace, holding her for a moment as though she were a corn-dolly or similarly fragile item of folk art." But this collection focuses almost to parody on traditionally circumscribed female existence.