Aging is no fun, as the protagonists of Helen Simpson's Cockfosters are all too aware. The breezy, dialogue-heavy style of these stories, each named after a location, masks the melancholy that drives them, with each piece focusing on middle-aged Britons who wonder what the rest of their lives have in store. The title story sets the tone: two 40ish women ride the Piccadilly Line back to Cockfosters, its northernmost terminal, to retrieve the glasses one of them left behind. As they discuss the pain of not knowing when they'll die, their journey is a metaphor for one of the collection's themes: life might be easier, or at least more predictable, if people knew the date on which they'll reach the end of the line.

Simpson explores this theme, as well as that of economic inequality, throughout these stories. A husband frets as much about aging as about the impending visit of his bombastic mother-in-law. After their holiday reading of The Chimes, book group attendees converse about "very average people who've made a great deal of money over the last twenty years." A 50-year-old acupuncturist likens the coming stage of life to Arizona, "brilliantly lit and level and filled with dependable sunshine," to a history professor client. The other woman agrees and says that one might as well be brave about death. After all, as another character in this wise book says, it "makes nothing out of something, and it lasts forever." --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer

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