Get a Life A Novel

Nadine Gordimer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




208 Pages


Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
Paul Bannerman, an ecologist in South Africa, believes he understands the trajectory of his life, with the usual markers of vocation and marriage. But when he's diagnosed with thyroid cancer and, after surgery, prescribed treatment that will leave him radioactive, for a period a danger to others, he begins to question, as Auden wrote, "what Authority gives / existence its surprise."

In the garden of his childhood home, where his businessman father, Adrian, and prominent civil rights lawyer mother, Lyndsay, take him in to protect his wife and child from radiation, he enters an unthinkable existence and another kind of illumination: the contradiction between the values of his work and those of his wife, Benni, an ad agency executive. His mother is transformed by the strange state of her son's existence to face her own past. Meanwhile, projects to build a nuclear reactor and drain vital wetlands preoccupy Paul as if he were at work. By the time he is cured, both families have been changed. On his return to his home and career, his parents go to Mexico to fulfill the archaeological vocation Adrian sacrificed to support his family. The consequence of this trip is the final surprise in this exploration of passionate individual existences.


Praise for Get a Life

"[Natalie Gordimer] is a most worldly writer, engaged for many years in South Africa's sulfurous politics, and those politics often find their way into her fiction. Yet her stories manage to avoid the narrative death rattle of the political novelist; they live on their own, free of propaganda. The working world is never far below the surface of Gordimer's books, existing side by side—sometimes easily, sometimes not—with the sexual life, all of it within the distinctive milieu of South Africa, though that nation has many aspects of a universal human condition. She is a writer of exceptional poise, writing tight, with ruffles and flourishes kept to a minimum . . . This novel begins superbly and ends wonderfully, and in between there are passages of high intelligence, not without Gordimer's signature asperity."—Ward Just, The Washington Post Book World
"The phrase 'late work' is usually reserved for masters, and it is appropriate to this 14th novel from Gordimer, whose cruel meditations on mortality and commitment are enacted within two marriages a generation apart. Paul Bannerman, a 35-year-old activist ecologist who works to prevent development of the South African bush, is diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Following radiation treatment, he stays with his parents, Adrian and Lyndsay; his ad exec wife, Berenice (Benni), and toddler son, Nicholas, visit him, but must avoid contact with Paul while he's radioactive. During Paul's stay, Gordimer sounds the depths of Paul and Benni's connection (shallow but sometimes tender) and replays Adrian and Lyndsay's turbulent (but on the surface, placid) past together. Paul and Benni's professional lives are at odds (she does ads for developers); Adrian chucked a potential career as an archeologist to advance Lyndsay's as a lawyer. When Paul returns home, change comes very rapidly—and dramatically—for everyone. Gordimer's narrator is chilly, remote and omniscient, toying with the characters and taking shots at them at almost every opening, particularly the two career-women: "How girlishly exciting it must have been," says the narrator of Lyndsay's past affair, begun at a conference. Paul's vulnerable, mortal body and everyone's life choices are relentlessly, tauntingly picked over in a manner that is spare and quick to the point of offhandedness. The result is a lacerating novel, one in which conflicted professional and domestic lives are played for all their contradictory possibility."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer. Copyright © 2005 by Nadine Gordimer Published in December 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

i / Child's Play

Only the street-sweeper swishing his broom to collect fallen leaves from the gutter.

The neighbours might have seen, but in the middle of a weekday morning everyone would be out at work or away for other daily-life reasons.

She was there, at the parents' driveway gate as he arrived, able to smile for him, and quickly sense the signal for them to laugh at, accept the strangely absurd situation
Read the full excerpt


  • Nadine Gordimer

  • Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, is the author of fifteen novels, more than ten volumes of stories, and three nonfiction collections. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
  • Nadine Gordimer Copyright Maureen Isaacson