The Girls: 07/16/09
The Girls by Helen Yglesias is about Jenny's trip from Bangor Maine to Miami Florida to be with her older sisters as they prepare for Naomi's death. The women range in age from eight to ninety-five.
The blurb in the book jacket says the book is here to fill the gap in contemporary fiction where there are no older woman as characters except as stock characters: the indulgent grandmother, the wicked witch and so forth. While that may have been the goal, I don't think The Girls succeeds.
My first problem I have is with their extreme age. I realize women do tend to live longer than men (and the brothers and husbands are all deceased) but it their age ranges just didn't seem believable for all they are doing. It seems to be trope in fiction that where there is one old character, he or she must come from a large and close family. The sisters from this book fall into that trope. Having Jenny coming to visit one, maybe two sisters, it would have been more believable than having a family reunion of four.
The second problem is Naomi's cancer. The odd thing about cancer is that the younger you are the more deadly it is. New, healthy cells mutate more in the presence of cancer than old and infirm ones do. Naomi at ninety five, may very well have breast cancer but it wouldn't be as well spread through body as it's described. Again, if all the sisters were fifteen to twenty years younger, the cancer would be a real and believable family tragedy.
The third problem is their attitude. I realize Helen Ygelsias was trying to create realistic older women by avoiding making them the old dearies that so often show up in fiction. Unfortunately she goes overboard in the other direction. For the entire book they bitch and mouth off at the world. They are rude. They are crude. They are bigoted. If the sisters hate the ethnic diversity of Miami so much why the hell are they still living there? Jenny is the only who can legitimately complain as she's the outsider. And complain she does, from the very first page to the very last page.
The only character I connected with at all and who truly struck me as a believable character was Eva. She's under medical treatment for something and the medicine has affected her appearance and her mental cognition. Despite all of this she's actually the nicest of the sisters. She genuinely cares for them and worries about them (although many of her worries are delusions).
While The Girls is a noble attempt at writing literary fiction with older women for an older audience I don't think it works.
books | fiction | Helen Yglesias | 1999