FAMILY BUSINESS By Anna Murdoch Morrow. 592 pp. $19.95
This elephantine but interesting novel is a peculiar mixture of unlikely elements. In part -- larger part, alas -- it is soap opera, replete with women named Yarrow and Blanchette and Fabiana, passionate sexual encounters among the high and mighty and melodramatic twists of plot that even the most credulous may have difficulty believing. Yet it is also a thoughtful, intelligent examination of relations between the sexes in the new age, and a knowledgeable, passionate celebration of the satisfactions that the newspaper business offers.
This last should not really come as any surprise, for Anna Murdoch is a former newspaper reporter and, more to the point, the wife of Rupert Murdoch. There is absolutely no evidence that she has used this connection to advance her own career as a novelist -- her first novel, "In Her Own Image," was published in 1985 to generally favorable reviews -- but there can be no question that it informs her portrayal of the newspaper industry in "Family Business," which is far less about the proverbial ink-stained wretches in the news room than about the people who run the industry at its highest levels.
In this instance the person doing the running is a woman with the improbable name of Yarrow McLean. Her grandfather had established a newspaper in the Colorado mining town of Galena, and her father carried on the family business in Platte City, where he took over the Journal and turned it from a shaky proposition into a going concern. But now he has suddenly died, and only Yarrow among his children is prepared to take over the paper. This she does after jettisoning her jealous, ineffectual husband and deciding to "make her life what she wanted" rather than "living by other people's expectations."
She is (of course) a great success as editor and publisher of the Journal, though (of course) she catches a fair amount of grief for being a woman, and in time she casts her eye on greater things. She takes over a marginal newspaper in New York, the Telegraph, establishes a magazine called (heaven knows why) Mollie, buys a television station in Denver, gains majority interest in a London newspaper, The Enquirer, and eventually becomes a global conglomerate, McLean Publications. She is rich, famous and powerful.
But she is not (of course) entirely happy. The love of her life, Elliot Weyden, is married to a woman whom he does not love but who will not grant him a divorce. He is himself a man of power and glamor, an investor whose broad range of interests gains him access to the world's most influential people and who has great influence in his own right -- so much, in fact, that in 1960 he announces as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. He is brought down, though, by newspaper reports of a messy secret. "The newspapers stink," he tells Yarrow. "Journalism stinks ... You're in a rotten business."
It is a moment of personal and professional crisis for Yarrow, but she (of course) triumphs by nursing her lover back to health and remaining firmly loyal to journalistic obligations as she understands them. She doughtily weathers the 1962-63 New York newspaper strike, ultimately withdrawing from the publishers' association (just as Dorothy Schiff did with the New York Post) and by striking up a working relationship with the printers' union leader, Albert Hinton, a thinly fictionalized Bert Powers.
But then much in "Family Business" is thinly fictionalized; frequently it isn't fictionalized at all, especially in Murdoch's account of the newspaper strike, wherein various actual figures in that conflict move in and out of her pages. Yarrow herself, though no doubt in essence a creature of the imagination, contains recognizable elements of Schiff, Katharine Graham, Anna Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch. She is a woman in a man's world, struggling to succeed on its terms while maintaining both her femininity and her dignity.
If all of this makes "Family Business" sound like a romance novel, that's because in substantial measure it is; not merely are the plots and characters (Yarrow excepted) hackneyed, so too is much of the prose. Yet "Family Business" rises above genre because Murdoch is neither sentimental nor simplistic in her contemplation of the change in relations between men and women, and because she writes about newspapering with real knowledge and love. Perhaps to appreciate this fully one must share, as I do, her affection for composing rooms and linotypes and presses, but she leaves no doubt that her feelings are real and deep; they are the novel's most attractive quality.