Poetry Madness

Wednesday, September 8th, 2004


Heir to the Glimmering World

by Cynthia Ozick

A Fairytale for Grownups

A review by Anna Godbersen

Rose Meadows, the narrator of Cynthia Ozick's new book, seems at first glance like a heroine plucked from a nineteenth-century novel. Bookish and motherless, she grows up in the cold shadow of a sneaky, penniless father. When her father leaves her in the care of a distant cousin, the well-meaning Bertram, she is exposed to the cruelty of his lover, a radical socialist who calls herself Ninel. As the book opens we see Rose, finally turned away by Ninel, responding to the vague help-wanted ad of a Professor Rudolph Mitwisser. The professor, she finds, has a half-mad wife who doesn't share his bed and a brood of wild children. Rose, still unsure whether she is to be nanny or secretary, is soon immersed in their lives, past and present.

For all this, Rose's new family does not live in the nineteenth-century: It is the Bronx of the 1930s, and theirs is a distinctly twentieth-century plight. The Mitwissers were once a prominent Jewish German family -- the professor was a scholar of Karaism, an obscure Jewish sect, his wife a physicist -- and they arrived in New York as refugees. They are supported by the capricious James A'Bair, who as a boy was transformed by his illustrator father into the hero of a famous series of children's books. The Bear Boy, as he was known, was a precious creature forced to sport rouged knees and lace collars. While this legacy has left him wealthy, it has also trapped the adult James in an imaginary childhood. Ozick, the celebrated author of essays, short stories, and novels, unpacks the histories and relationships of these characters with great energy and imagination. She has written a dark fairytale for grownups, and it reads like a haunting pleasure.

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