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Book Review : Sisters With a Passion for Life, Even in Old Age : THE GIRLS; by Helen Yglesias; Delphinium Books $19, 214 pages

September 06, 1999|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If they were not so commonplace, the various physical and mental transformations that accompany old age--wrinkled skin, gray hair, baldness, lost teeth, fragile bones, rigid joints, forgetfulness--might well strike us as some kind of gruesome gimmick straight out of a horror film. The problems of old age seem "normal." But merely because something is normal, like death, does not mean it is desirable.

Four sisters in their 80s and 90s are the "girls" of Helen Yglesias' grimly comic novel. A former literary editor of the Nation who decided to write in her 50s, Yglesias is now in her 80s and, like her novel's heroine, the youngest of four sisters. Needless to say, she knows whereof she writes.

Eighty-year-old Jenny, the youngest of the Witkovsky sisters, is the family intellectual. Jenny is an unreconstructed Northeasterner. Summoned to Miami (or as she thinks of it, "Their-ami") to help her sister Flora, 85, deal with the increasing debility of their two oldest sisters, Naomi, 90, and Eva, 95, Jenny is not looking forward to the trip. Not only does the nattily dressed-in-black Jenny feel like a fish out of water in the subtropical metropolis, but the strain of a sisterly reunion under such difficult circumstances threatens to consume every ounce of her not-inconsiderable energy and stamina.

Her beloved oldest sister Eva, who had always seemed rather like a mother to her, is confined to a wheelchair, her face bloated and her wits addled by medication. Naomi at 90 is still beautiful, but suffering from cancer and not expected to live more than a few months. Flora, still dating at 85 and enjoying a career as a kind of performance artist at senior centers, is as flamboyant as ever, but insists that Jenny be the one to see that Eva and Naomi undergo a form of passive euthanasia. Flora eagerly tells the Kevorkian-like doctor she has enlisted in the cause that Jenny can do it: "She has that coldness. I'm too emotional." A stunned Jenny can scarcely believe her ears.

Accusations and counter-accusations fly fast and furious, particularly between Jenny and Flora. Flora accuses Jenny of being superior and distant, of being "a self-hating Jew" who changed her name from Witkovsky to Witter. Nonetheless, Flora has no hesitation in summoning Jenny to rescue her when one of the men she's picked up starts brandishing a gun in her bedroom.

All four sisters have found that old age has not diminished their desire for love and the companionship and physical intimacy that go with it. "Eighty-year-old women weren't supposed to feel horny," Jenny reflects. "They were supposed to be serene, wise, resigned. But here she was, raging in bed, for love, for lost love. . . . Grieving. For the loss of her husband of 40 years."

Unlike that rambunctious television trio, "The Golden Girls," the Witkovsky sisters are not mere caricatures overacting their way through contrived situations. Yglesias' rendering of the sisters' embarrassing squabbles is as painfully realistic as it is comic. Similarly, she brings out the terrible poignancy of their predicament without resorting to cloying sentimentality. Indeed, her portrayal of these four old "girls" as unique, complicated individuals is as gritty and involving as Merrill Joan Gerber's unsparing depiction of old age in "Anna in Chains."

Each of the Witkovsky sisters is clearly a formidable woman. What we are told of their various histories rings true. But we unfortunately are told rather than shown, with the result that the characterization, though eminently believable, remains a little thin. This thinness, however, may well reflect the way in which Yglesias' 80-year-old protagonist looks at her life. From the vantage point of old age, all the adventures, decisions, crises, dramas, joys and sorrows of youth and adulthood may indeed seem smaller. "The Girls" is a tough-minded, quietly affecting portrait of four women--not hags, not crones, but ordinary Jewish American ladies--facing the end of life with a courageous blend of defiance and resignation.

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