Cover image for The girls
The girls
Yglesias, Helen.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Harrison, N.Y. : Delphinium Books ; New York : Distributed by HarperCollinsPublishers, [1999]

Physical Description:
213 pages ; 19 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In her first novel in a dozen years, the acclaimed author of "How She Died" and "Sweetsir" returns with a poignant and very funny story about the last American taboos: old age and dying.

Author Notes

Author Helen Yglesias was born on March 29, 1915. After graduating from high school, she had numerous jobs including selling underwear, stuffing envelopes, teaching ballroom dancing, and typing manuscripts. By 1965, she was an editor at The Nation magazine. She did not write her first novel until she was 54. Her works examine the lives of women in an array of settings and situations and the tension of women juggling the demands of career and family was often present. She is best-known for the novel Sweetsir. Her other works include How She Died, Family Feeling, The Saviors, and The Girls. She died of natural causes on March 28, 2008.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Yglesias, author of How She Died (1972), weaves a slight but moving story about four sisters--Jenny, age 80, Flora, 85, Naomi, 90, and Eva, 95--coping with the various indignities of aging. Jenny has come to Miami (where the three other sisters live) to help Naomi after her second cancer surgery. In between bickering with Flora, straightening out Naomi's finances, and discovering that Eva is having an adverse reaction to her medication, Jenny realizes that she has still not dealt with the hurt feelings and jealousy left over from childhood. As she and Flora accompany Eva and Naomi to the nursing home that is their final destination, Jenny understands that Flora's life, and hers, will eventually come to the same end. Yglesias leavens the grimness with comic scenes, especially featuring Flora, who picks up men at geriatric centers and complains about their sexual adequacy. This is a good novel to accompany Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971), The Diaries of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing (1984), and the memoirs of Doris Grumbach and May Sarton. --Nancy Pearl

Publisher's Weekly Review

In such works as her classic novel of family interaction, How She Died, and her graphic depiction of working-class families in Sweetsir, Yglesias has never pulled her punches, writing with unsparing candor about the ways people in intimate relationships can hurt each other. She does so again in this little book, which describes, with unconstrained frankness and gallows humor, the pitiable conditions afflicting those in the anteroom of death. Narrator Jenny Witkovsky (aka Jane Witter, the name she uses as writer, critic, professor and lecturer) is even at 80 the "baby" of the four Witkovsky sisters. Two of the siblings are slowly dying, and Jenny comes to Miami Beach to help ease their last days. Eva, the eldest, is 95, and quietly failing. Naomi, at 90, is riddled with cancer. In recent years, they have depended on the third sister, 85-year-old Flora, a flamboyant geriatric sexpot who egotistically manipulates her siblings' lives. Now Jenny's arrival causes combustion. Yglesias eschews plot in favor of character portrayals, sketchily delineating the sisters' upbringing as the offspring of Jewish immigrants, and filling in their numerous marriages and lovers, careers and children, and the origins of their sibling rivalry. Meanwhile, she presents a social and cultural travelogue of Miami Beach's various districts and neighborhoodsÄsweeping from the gaudy vulgarity of opulent hotels to down-at-the-heels elderly residences and nursing homes; capturing the Jewish population's prejudices against Cubans and Haitians, and vice versa; and drawing, without a veil of tact, an accurate picture of the geriatric community, most of whom are torn between the will to live and the wish to get dying over with. Detailed descriptions of the outfits each sister wears daily are intended as an indication of character but become jarringly intrusive in so slight a story. Yet some things are eerily accurate: the Yiddish-flavored, go-for-the-jugular dialogue; the ubiquity of infirm bodies using wheelchairs and walkers, the loud chatter of Spanish on buses and other public conveyances. And when, after a series of confrontations, recriminations, tears and reconciliations, the sisters finally agree on terminal care, they are all clear-eyed about the "unspeakable reality" of death. The audience for this book is anyone who is watching people they love grow old. Agents, Frances Goldin and Sydelle Kramer. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

I am not an 80-year-old Jewish woman. Nor have I been to Miami, with its gaudy colors, hot wind, and aging population. But from this novel, the fifth by Helen Yglesias (The Saviors), I can vividly imagine what it would be like. The "girls" are the four Witkovsky sisters: Eva, 95, debilitated by carelessly monitored drugs; Naomi, 90, fighting cancer but maintaining a crown of naturally black hair; Flora, 85, dressed in garish outfits as she does her standup routine on the senior circuit; and Jenny, the youngest, who comes south from New York to care for the others. Through her we meet the sisters, celebrate Eva's birthday, meet Flora's latest date, and settle Naomi into a nursing home. The sisters quarrel about men and money, rage and forgive, review the past and wonder why they can't live forever in this brisk, affecting novel. Recommended for public libraries.ÄYvette Weller Olson, City Univ. Lib., Renton, WA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



It had been the little kids in the family who heard Miami as Theirami - Grandma and Grandpa's Ami, Aunt Naomi's Ami, Aunt Eva's Ami, Uncle Max's Ami, all the way down the Witkovsky family line.  That was fine with Jenny.  Their Ami, not hers.  Jenny had never wanted any part of Anybody's Ami.  She was gald that her own children had never claimed the place.         They had been a large family, seven brothers and sisters plus Mama and Papa: four girls, as they were still called into their nineties, "the girls," and three boys, "the boys" into their eighties.  The males died younger, died, in Miami, one after the other, though Mama went first; then Lionel, out of the family order, a middle brother; then Papa; then the eldest brother, Stanley; and recently powerful Max, dead of prostrate cancer as if he were any old body and not the head of a huge moneymaking industry - clothing factories, retail stores, real estate, investment banking.  Philanthropy, of course.  Dead anyway, before his two older sisters and his two younger, leaving only Mama and Papa's four daughters still to go, with Jenny the last of the last, the youngest, arrived in Miami International Airport, arrived at the doorway of God's waiting room, as the old joke had it.  Not to die herself, but to help her two oldest sisters die, Eva and Naomi, hovering, endlessly horribly hovering on the brink.  Eva was ninety-five, Naomi was ninety, Flora eighty-five, and she, Jenny, was eighty.  Neat arrangement, the five-year intervals.  "Every five years makes a generation," Gertrude Stein had written somewhere, and was right, at least about these four sisters.         But the immediate job before Jenny was to get herself transported from the airport to the beach.  Not easy.  Miami was treating Jenny as heartlessly as Jenny was disowning Miami.  Though she had clearly told the porter that she needed the SuperShuttle to the beach, he had dropped her and her heavy luggage at the deserted end of a platform where everything was passing her by.  She saw herself as if on film - a long shot of a white-haired woman stranded in a chaotic scene of cars, buses, limos, vans, cop cruisers, taxis, motorcycles careening by in a roar of sound, strangely muffled.  This old woman who was herself wore a thin black wool suit, a silk knit top visible at the jacket's opening, real pearls glowing against the dark fabric, a mink coat slung over one arm, and a covering her only slightly rounded shoulders a cashmere shawl (in case the plane became chilly or a sudden cold spell hit Miami).  Her swollen feet were crammed into soft black kid shoes, and the off-black hose were badly wrinkled at the ankles.  Nevertheless.  No little-old-lady-in-tennis-shoes image for this woman.  Elegance, if it killed.  It would certainly wound.  Her feet would ache for a night and a day.         She must not die in Miami.  She would die in New England where she lived.  Or in New York City, where Mama and Papa and her three brothers were buried.  Actually, the family plot was located in Brooklyn among the massed graves of what Jenny's daughter called cemetery slums.  For herself, Jenny didn't really care where she died as long as she was cremated and the urn buried under the white lilac bush behind her studio in Maine.         Forget Miami, forget the family plot in Brooklyn.  Concentrate on here and now.         "Aren't we supposed to go out in order, oldest first?" Naomi on the telephone yesterday morning, begging Jenny to come help her with her dying, though not in plain words naturally, adding an unspoken bargaining plea to Jenny and God that Eva go first.  Naomi had cancer.  Eva had no diseases but old age.  Jenny herself had no jurisdiction, and it looked as if God was not going to oblige.  Naomi was going to die first.  Jenny had come, answering her next oldest sister Flora's cry for help as well.  "You have to come down, Jenny, I can't do this alone."  The four sisters, together, ninety-five, ninety, eighty-five, and eighty.  She laughed, this youngest sister of eighty, though there was nothing to laugh about.         So here she was.         She had flown in from Banger, Maine, and was stifling in her northern costume.  The afternoon air was hot, humid, heavy with exhaust.  Exhaust.  Miami had already exhausted her and she had hardly arrived.  There hadn't been a tourist killing in Miami for several months, but she fit the perfect victim profile and would probably revive the trend.  She reminded herself that she was, in fact, a minor actor in the New York intellectual scene, she was Somebody, however ridiculously middle-class pretentious Nobody she seemed at the moment.  It had been a mistake to aim for elegance.  She should have come as Nobody in worn jeans and her brilliantly colored down jacket, made in China.  With the mink over her arm, she was tightly clutching a green cloth carryall imprinted with the Time magazine logo; nothing could have announced more plainly that her valuables were in the cloth bag.  She had placed her larger piece of luggage too close to her feet, and she was in danger of stumbling over it without making a move. She put her hand on her chest to help her breathing; the air was like hot tea.  She waited.  Someone or something must come along to help.  A cop car skidded past, more like a kiddy-car.  Resolutely leaving her luggage unattended, she stepped out into the traffic and waved for help with the arm holding the Time carryall.  The cop toy went right by, but a second appeared immediately behind it.  She waved frantically.  The driver was determined to ignore her.  She placed herself squarely in his way.         The young cop swung to a stop and inquired in disgust if she was trying to kill herself.         "Right in the line of traffic, lady? Not too smart?"         Apparently a question, but he didn't wait for an answer.         "What're you doing back here, anyway? You coming or going?  Know where you're headed?"         "I have a reservation on the SuperShuttle, officer," she said.  She'd try good manners, the great placater.         "You belong all the way down there, lady."         "I told the porter and this is where he dropped me.  He said the shuttle would pick me up at this spot," and added, to indicate that she wasn't thoroughly addled, "The shuttle to Miami Beach."         She had stepped back onto the platform, close to her luggage.  Now the cop's disgust was for the porter.  "Asshole," he muttered under his breath, and took off on foot, leaving his kiddy-car behind.  At least she hoped "asshole" was for the porter, and that the parked car meant he was coming back.  Vehicles roared around it and him, respectful enough of his uniform and his raised hand to keep from killing him.  She wouldn't have wanted him to die for her unless that was the only way out.         In a moment he commandeered a shuttle bus, empty except for the driver and another fellow busy with a clipboard.  Silent and sullen, they obeyed the cop's orders.  The clipboard guy hopped out, loaded her and her luggage in, asked in English with a strong Spanish accent where she was going and if she had a reservation.         She called up her best manner for the cop first.  "I can't thank you enough, officer. Thank you so much."         Clipboard mimicked her in Spanish, repeating her words in a faint falsetto.  She would pretend she didn't understand Spanish.  She gave him the address on Collins Avenue and added, "Yes, I do have a reservation."         "Miami Beach?  You should be down the other end, lady.  You can't expect a pickup here.  We don't do that."         She hated to be called "lady" or "madam" or "ma'am," or by her first name by strangers.         What, then, what in the world would she liked to be called?         The cop, back in his kiddy-car, stuck his head out.  "You get this nice lady where she's going, you get her to her destination.  Understand?"         "Yes yessir sure sure," Clipboard agreed, and once in the bus relieved himself in a long string of Spanish.         Nice lady. Worse, worse.  Time to charm the driver and the Clipboard.  Should she talk to them in Spanish?  That might be the last straw.  A pushy Jewish old lady talking to Caribbeans in her stilted Castilian Spanish.  She chose English.         "I can't thank you enough for your help," she said.  "Thank you so much."         "She's a regular Virgin of Cavadonga," Clipboard said in Spanish.  The driver laughed.  Encouraged, Clipboard mimicked, "Thank you, thank you," in falsetto Spanish again, and then, in his own deep voice, "Enough with the thank yous, please, just permit us to get our fucking jobs done, thank you, please, thank you."         "Cuidado," the driver said.  "She might understand."         "Nothing," Clipboard said.  "This kind understands nothing.  I have the greatest reverence for old age, you who know me like a brother above all know that I revere the aged, but these old Jewish farts disgust me.  They don't know how to grow old, they are totally without dignity.  Pushing in ahead of others."  He shifted to English.  "We're full up on that run, where we going to find the space?"         "All right, okay," the driver responded in English, switching to Spanish for "Shut up already, you get started you never know when to stop," then back to English.  "The lady's got a reservation, check it out."         "Check it out, check it out," Clipboard repeated in despair, and added in Spanish, "I'm lucky if I have time to check out my own shit."         "Ciudado," the driver said again.  "I can see by her eyes she knows what you're saying."         "What eyes?  They don't have eyes.  Our women have eyes, even the old ones can kill you with a flash of their eyes.  All these old farts have is eyeglasses.         "Jesus," the driver prayed, "shut this guy up, will you, before I go completely crazy."         "Amen," Jenny said, but to herself. Settled at last in a different air-conditioned bus, comfortable in the high leather seat directly behind the driver, she told herself to pay no further attention to the continuing muddle of the SuperShuttle schedule.  She never should have listened to her sister Flora about taking the shuttle.  Penny-saving Flora, who certainly had more money than Jenny did.  What she wouldn't give to have been met by a limo.  She astounded herself by falling asleep for a split second, and was instantly awakened by the sound of her own snorting breath.  Another indignity.  She never used to snore.         There were apparently only three riders for Miami Beach: a sloppy teenaged girl backpacking a tremendous load, wearing ripped jeans and a tiny scarlet top ending just above her navel, seemingly sick, yawning violently every few minutes, filling the bus with the nauseating stench of what was probably trench mouth; a very tall blond young man in expensive baggy leisure clothes who placed himself and his pile of soft leather luggage on the farthest back seat to avoid the dirty teenager - and probably to avoid Jenny as well; and a nattily dressed white-haired man who asked permission to sit up front next to the attractive black woman driver and immediately began telling her jokes in Brooklynese.         "A rabbi, a priest, and a dentist went to a bar . . ."         Jenny screened out the rest, and they took off as the driver announced her name to the bus:  Angelica.         Angelica screamed with laughter at each punch line, her body heaving, the bus careening.  In between the dapper fellow's jokes she inserted intimacies of her married life.  Her husband didn't like her to work.  He thought she should stay at home taking care of their three children.  She disagreed strenuously, as if he were right there in the bus arguing.  "Listen, they're not babies anymore, the youngest is seven, they're all in school.  They take good care of themselves.  I always wanted to drive these shuttles.  I'm a good driver, one of the best, but it took time to get me where I am, took plenty of time, lots of hard work, all those lousy runs, now I'm doing it, now I got what I worked so hard for, I'm not giving it up for nobody."  More  jokes, followed by more intimacies.  Angelica loved driving the shuttle, loved people, loved Miami thruways, loved the waterways, loved the heat and the air conditioning, loved talking and listening to her passengers.  "It sure beats Chicago," she said.  "I don't know why anybody stays in those northern cities."  The old gent punctuated her revelations - "Great!"  "Good for you!"  "You're terrific!"  "Attagirl!" - and went on with his next joke.  Angelica laughed as the top-heavy bus swung sharply to left and right.         Jenny glances behind her.  The sick girl was asleep, her skinny body rolling about.  From his haven in the last row, the handsome young man sprawled pleasantly, legs spread, arms resting on the back of the seat in front of him.  Jenny smiled; he responded, rolling his large blue eyes in the direction of the front-seat's ongoing skit, fluttering his fingers for the erratic driving style.         Was he gay?  Headed for South Beach?  An actor?  Filmmaker?  No.  Filmmakers rode in limos.  Not only gays rolled their eyes.  Her own thoroughly heterosexual son rolled his eyes, also large and blue.  Stupid ruminations on her part.  No offense.  No judgements, just observations.         She forcibly turned her attention to the landscape.         Landscape. No longer a word descriptive of Miami Beach.  What had been original to pristine Florida was now entirely paved, restructured, and redesigned.  Nature, Darwin, God himself (or herself) had been flummoxed.  Flummoxed. Nobody said "flummoxed" anymore.  Landscape.  Seascape.  Land and sea, rivers and woods, scrub and sand, flowers and blossoming fruit trees, sharks in the ocean, crocodiles in the swamps, animals and snakes in the jungly matted undergrowth, birds, birds, birds in the strange silvery gray trees, birds, birds, birds strutting, preening, and skittering on the endless stretches of beach, still other birds sheltering in the tall gracefully bending grasses.  Once Florida had been an astonishing seascape and landscape. Now it was astonishing, period.         She had expected to hate Miami Beach on her first visit in the late forties, after the Second World War, when Mama and Papa retired to Eighth Street near Washington on their son Max's money.  The overnight train trip on the Silver Meteor had been hard.  The coach car was jammed.  The whole country seemed on the move along with the returning servicemen.  Jenny was leaving her first husband, the father of her two children.  The children were with her.  Guilt made her fuss too much over their four and two-year- old comfort, their entertainment, their food and sleep.  She read to them, sang songs, played games, held them on her lap in turn, settled and resettled them in the uncomfortable coach seats, took them to the unsatisfactory expensive dining car, to the smelly lavatory, to the messy drinking fountain, kept them happy, prayed to God to keep them happy while she went about her selfish business of doing them irreparable harm, tearing up their safe little lives by divorcing their father. Excerpted from The Girls by Helen Yglesias All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.