Heir to the Glimmering World, by Cynthia Ozick. Published 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Literary Fiction.
Set in Depression-era New York, Heir to the Glimmering World is the story of young Rose Meadows, 18 years old and on her own in a heartless world.
She's an employee in the home of the Mitwissers, a family of immigrant German Jews headed by an imposing scholar of an ancient heretical Jewish sect, and his wife, mentally ill and secluded. They have five children and Rose becomes a nanny, nursemaid and secretary all at once.
She's ended up with the Mitwissers after the death of her neglectful father and abandonment by her cousin Bertram, enamored of heartless Communist Ninel nee Miriam, who turns her out. In fact, one theme of the novel is abandonment and the callousness of just about every character in the book towards Rose is enough to make me blanch. Another theme of the novel is inheritance in its various forms- inheritance of culture, of money, of history and of a place in the world, and the title, although most directly applicable to one character in particular, is in one way or another a reference to all.
This character most directly referred to is James a'Bair, the grown-up heir to a children's book fortune. He is a mercurial man whose fame and wealth has alieniated him from the world and left him on its margins; something about the Mitwisser clan attracts him, and he becomes their benefactor. He pays for their home, their food, Mr. Mitwisser's scholarship, and everything else the family might need. And he has an eye on their oldest daughter, Anneliese, a cold young woman who is kept at home away from the influences of America and assimilation.
Heir to the Glimmering World is the first novel I've read by author Cynthia Ozick, and it was something of a revelation. She's an absolutely magnificent writer; she has an erudite, literary style and has created a compelling character-driven novel of ideas. And it the nuances of character and personality that drive the book; very little happens in the way of plot. The story is propelled by the indignities large and small the characters visit upon each other, fueled by the desperation of the times and the characters' individual vulnerabilities. It's not a sunny story, and I would characterize the end as merely inevitable rather than happy.
Heir reminds me a little bit of The Believers (click the title for my review), Zoe Heller's just-published novel about another unhappy family of Jewish intellectuals, but where Heller's characters fail to engage, Ozick succeeds in making the Mitwissers, and even James, tolerable by investing each one with some singular passion- scholarship, or family, or freedom, and by making Rose such a sympathetic, intelligent and careful observor. Readers who enjoyed The Believers would probably find Heir to the Glimmering World to be a more highbrow, more accomplished story in a similar vein. I wouldn't call it my favorite book, but I admire Ozick her evident skill and look forward to reading more of her work.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.