I am completely dumbfounded. Bewildered. Confused. Phrases like “witty,” “wise,” and “a rollicking story” pepper the back cover of Cynthia Ozick’s Heir To the Glimmering World. But could such praise possibly be meant for THIS novel? THIS ONE?
My own arsenal of phrases for this book include “dark,” “dull,” and “uninspiringly methodical.”
Rose Meadows is left without a mother at the age of three, only to be raised by her charlatan of a father. He manages to slough her off to a “cousin” (by marriage only, and even then only remotely) when she is still a teen, and in short order the cousin succumbs to his own selfish designs and sends her out into the world. She lands on the doorstep of the Mitwisser family, intellectual refugees from Germany – an unruly, loud, raucous, incredibly dysfunctional crew. She is hired as a…well, she doesn’t really know. She is at different times a nanny for the youngest child, caretaker for the mentally distressed mother, secretary to the head of the household, Professor Mitwisser. As live-in help, she learns the intimate history of this family and their fall from high social rank in Europe. She learns their secrets and infidelities, and becomes proficient at manuevering through their daily drama and inabilities to forgive and embrace their new American lives.
The reader’s guide at the end of this novel would have you believe Rose is a “plucky teenage heroine,” but as I read it, she was totally without ambition. Even when she is in possession of a small fortune, she stays stuck where she is, being mistreated and always misunderstood. Her life just HAPPENS to her. It was so frustrating! She sometimes steps outside of convention and speaks her mind, but never with convincing force, and never with any visible results. I found it impossible to respect her.
Smaller plots spin out of the main column of Rose’s story, brief diversions without much appeal. Professor Mitwisser’s obsessive study of the Karaites (a somewhat controversial movement within the Jewish religion)? Dense and alienating to me as a reader. The story of James, the Mitwisser’s benefactor and subject of the popular (fictional) Bear Boy children’s books? Slightly more interesting, I’ll give it that.
There were a few “aha” moments when tendrils of the different stories met and intertwined. But nothing I found that could corraborate the book cover’s declaration that this was “engaging on a pure what-will- happen next level.” It seemed easy enough to guess what would happen next – more hidden wants, more miscommunication, more gloom. Always more gloom.
I thought of the strangest book association while reading this novel. It made me think of Lemony Snicket and the warning he gives at the beginning of the Unfortunate Events collection. He warns the reader that there is nothing pleasant to be found in the pages of his books – no optimism, no happiness, no heroes. I felt like this book needed a similar disclaimer.
Even at the end of the story, with a small bright arc of happiness happening for some of the characters, other characters are left in total shadow. Characters that should, by right, have been given their own chance at improvement and peace. Perhaps that is what bothered me more than the pervasive web of melancholy that runs throughout this book – the idea that, ultimately, the author settles on distributing no justice for any of her characters.
LINKS OF INTEREST:
ReadySteadyBook reviewed this and like it much better than I did.
**edited to update**
In reading some other online reviews, I understand Ozick was attempting to pay homage to the construct and formula of the Victorian novel. Orphan is sent afar to live with and work for a brooding, foreign family. She must assert herself and attempt to find her place as an outsider, first convincing herself of who she is, and then trying to convince the others. Critics mentioned Dickens and the Brontes – Jane Eyre was specifically sited – as inspiration for this novel. In that context, I can see where Ozick was trying to go with her novel. And yet, while I ADORE Victorian literature, there is something in the time period it was written that forgives the many frustrations over action vs. inaction, and women’s struggle to find their voice. This novel takes place in the 1930’s. I guess I just have a much harder time taking Victorian behavior from a more modern girl.
Also, it is clear that Ozick is a very important author in the Jewish community. I respect her for that. And I will say that despite my not liking the book, it was very well-written. I don’t know if I’ll ever chance to meet a work of hers again – it might be interesting to see what I think of something else she has produced.
*Disclosure: Affiliate link included.