Family Feeling is the second novel of Helen Yglesias, former literary editor of The Nation and writing instructor in the Fine Arts Program of Columbia University. In a decade which has been preoccupied with changes in family life styles, the novel creates a familiar, even traditional, scene. Although it includes some incidents of marital infidelity, secret abortions, and broken marriages, Family Feeling is, on the whole, a romance of an upward striving immigrant family that succeeds in the New World and that retains its sense of family despite the vicissitudes of social custom. Unlike other popular novels published in the 1970’s, such as Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks, or Rosellen Brown’s Autobiography of My Mother, Yglesias portrays a relatively stable, nonmasochistic heroine who ultimately combines family and career into a rewarding enterprise. The American melting pot in the form of the Goddard family produces a well-flavored blend of palatable, familiar folk who argue and love and strive but are not destroyed as the family context changes.
The Goddard family, whose real name has been lost by some official at Ellis Island, lacks factual ancestors but connects with an older Hebraic family who also was exiled and whose physical and psychological intactness was salvaged by the youngest child. Anne, youngest offspring of Momma and Papa Goddard, is reminiscent of Joseph, the favored child of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, who was sold by his brothers but rose to fame and influence in the foreign land of Egypt. Like Joseph, Anne understands the dreams of the New Land and possesses a realistic sensibility which leads to a special kind of influence, a creative power which assures her family’s survival in a new country.
Yglesias complicates the motif of the youngest as redeemer and establishes a thoroughly contemporary position by having the family’s fortunes depend on the youngest of each sex. The social and political struggles between men and women in America are reflected in the different avenues to power and success which the two protagonists Hannah (Anne) Goddard and Baruch (Barry) Goddard employ. Barry is the third child and youngest son; Anne is the seventh child and youngest daughter. Barry is pragmatic, determined, materialistic; Anne is literate, experimental, artistic. Both represent important, complementary aspects of their family’s character. Barry becomes a multimillionaire industrialist; Anne blossoms into a literary editor of a prominent New York magazine. Through their combined energies, they establish the Goddard name on the economic, educational, and social landscape of America. The rest of the family, however, remains dependent on Barry’s financial munificence and Anne’s solid good sense. The parents are depleted physically and financially as they try to provide shelter and food for their large family. But Barry and Anne enter this new land with gusto. They assimilate the Old World tradition with the American Dream and create a new coat of many colors. The notion of family is expanded from a nuclear unit to a larger, disbanded collection of people linked by the memories of their parents and the realistic accomplishments of their family members. The Goddard family survives, but the direction is toward assimilation. The youngest have earned power and prestige, but the Goddard name seems, at the end of the novel, to become more symbol than reality. Barry and Anne, the new patriarch and matriarch, survey their city and realize that the future of their family resides in the past, and that redemption for the new generation will need to be drawn from within. In a sense, the novel has come full circle.
The motif of a complementary pair is also carried through the novel by the narrator, Anne Goddard. Anne is both the “I” and the “she” as Yglesias uses a complicated first-person point of view to create a sense of intimacy and distance within the novel. Anne writes the novel in her mature years after her two children have grown up and her second husband, Guy Rossiter, is dead. The novel is a reminiscence about her family and her life. Therefore, at times the Annes split into an internal author and a character in a novel, producing a sense of the younger Anne being viewed by the older Anne. This sensitive use of the first-person point of view allows the reader both to identify with Anne and to pull back and see her foibles. Anne is both creating and living her life as a character and an author and in this way she underscores a pervasive value in the novel that life is, in part, a creation of one’s mind and spirit.
This narrational complexity also permeates the novel’s structure and is clearly illustrated in the first chapter. The novel begins with reminiscences of Anne’s birth and early childhood and an account of her mother’s death. “She was dead before I thought to ask her all the things I wanted to know,” Anne remarks and then proceeds to recall her mother in her dying moments, bringing her back to life so that some answers can be found. As the chapter progresses, Anne is going to her mother’s funeral and describes her actions in terms of her own family arrangements: “I leave my children with a baby-sitter and take an hour’s trip to attend early morning services with my father and brothers. My mother’s body has been brought to New York for burial in a Brooklyn cemetery plot.” The first chapter closes with the writer Anne remembering her mother in the present by the use of past artifacts and customs: “Now I keep my mother’s candlesticks in my kitchen on the Franklin fireplace mantle of my New England cape. From my garden I cut a spray of fresh dill and add it to the last cooking minutes of the chicken soup and evoke her in the delicate, sharp scent. I insist on her existence, and on my own.”
This collapsing and expanding of time and space by repeating the story from several angles, as well as the narrator’s multiplicity of perspective, makes Family Feeling an unusual novel. Within the first chapter cited above, Anne is an infant, a small child, a young mother, a divorced woman, a mature writer. The “I” changes to create a series of glimpses of the Goddard family which defy linear recapitulation. The past blends with the present and the present bears the imprint of past experiences. Anne is constantly told by her siblings that she is a liar or that she “can’t possibly remember that,” and the progress of the novel which presents incomplete events replicates this sense of someone making up a story as she goes along. There are many Annes in the novel, therefore, and the “I’s” and “she’s” are at different times stepping forward to the novel’s front stage to enrich the character. Even Anne’s name, which her mother changes from Anne to Anna to Hannah to Hannahle, and which Anne Goddard Americanizes once again, illustrates this sense of faces sliding into others but remaining one.
Throughout, then, it is the youngest child whose perceptions predominate. The competition between Anne and Barry is...
(The entire section is 2907 words.)