Synopses & Reviews
At the end of what is (she cannot help observing) an extraordinary life, Elisabeth Rother has decided to write her memoirs. She brushes aside her narrow escape with her Jewish husband from the Nazis, and the perilous voyage to the New World of New Jersey. The subject that really consumes her is the waywardness of her impossible daughter, Renate, and her granddaughter, Irene. Renate performs autopsies on the bodies of politicians whom death has harvested in the nighttime arms of their mistresses. Worse, she sleeps on unironed sheets. Irene drops out of school to roam the world, refuses to correct her nose with plastic surgery, and shows alarming signs of enjoying sex. What is to be done with such women?
A curiously touching love letter to the difficult but sustaining love of mothers and daughters, The Empress of Weehawken is a masterpiece of comedy with an unexpected lilt of redemption at its close.
"Frau Professor Doktor Rother is stubborn, hypochondriacal, devoid of the slightest sentimentality. . . . She is also, by the way, frighteningly funny. . . . I couldn't get enough of her life story--Irene Dische made me laugh at the shock of it all."--Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil
"An adrenaline-shot of a novel . . . The Empress of Weehawken is sharp as razors on the gradual entrapment of Jews in Germany. It's a classic immigration tale about a family's 'precarious union with America.'"--Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
"This book does a number of things beautifully, even brilliantly. . . . The real grandeur of The Empress of Weehawken, however, lies in the narrator's voice. . . . Frau Rother is drawn as accurately as the slice of a surgeon's scalpel."--Amy Wilentz, Los Angeles Times
"The voice of the reprobate-empress here is pitch-perfect. Dische has captured this fictionalized grandmother . . . with pepper and grace."--Gail Caldwell, The Boston Globe
At the end of what is (she cannot help observing) an extraordinary life, Elisabeth Rother has decided to write her memoirs. She recounts her narrow escape with her Jewish husband from the Nazis, and the perilous voyage to the New World of New Jersey, but those, for her, are mere facts of life. For Elisabeth, bighearted and obstinate, the most bothersome and consuming subjects are the unconventional paths and waywardness of her daughter, Renate, and her granddaughter, Irene.
The Empress of Weehawken is a curiously touching love letter to the difficult but sustaining love of mothers and daughters. Written in the voice of the author's very real grandmother, it is "superb . . . razor-sharp, desert-dry, and luxuriantly ironic" (The San Diego Union-Tribune).
About the Author
Irene Dische is a novelist and journalist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker. Her books, published in twenty-two countries, have included international bestsellers. She divides her time between Berlin and Rhinebeck, NY.
Reading Group Guide
1. How were you affected by the fact that the author and Elisabeths granddaughter have the same name? How is the experience of reading a novel different from reading a memoir?
2. What are the merits of Elisabeths criteria for choosing a spouse? What was the key to her enduring marriage to Carl?
3. Did Carls family have anything other than nationality in common with Elisabeths? Why was Carl unenthusiastic about his relatives and their Jewish cultural identity?
4. What ultimately led to the Rothers survival under Hitler? How did their situation differ from those in other Holocaust narratives you have read? How would you have resplved Elisabeth and Carls dilemma over whether to flee?
5. How would you describe Elisabeths unique storytelling voice? How does she manage to be both irresistible and outrageous? Who is the "keeper of the saga" in your family?
6. What are the traits of Elisabeths version of Catholicism? How does the hierarchy of sins help her negotiate life? What does she fear? How does she determine whether others are worthy?
7. Discuss the parenting styles described in The Empress of Weehawken. How did Liesel and her niece exert control over the children in their care (and over the parents)? How does Elisabeths mothering compare to Renates? Was it nature or nurture that caused Irene and Little Carl to make unconventional, sometimes self-defeating, choices?
8. Has the idea of an American identity changed very much since the time Elisabeht and Renate finally reunited with Carl? What aspects of American life characterized the mid- twentieth century but have now vanished? What did the Rothers love and dislike about their American and German homelands?
9. Discuss the various husbands described in The Empress of Weehawken. Who did you see as the ideal men? What did Renate seem to need in a man? How do her husbands compare to her father?
10. The novel opens with Carls determination to have a son and closes with the line "nothing beats a daughter." How do the novels female characters learn how to define themselves as women? What were the expectations for each generation in areas such as sex, marriage, careers, grooming, and housekeeping? How do their attitudes compare to the ones in your family history?
11. How do Elisabeth and Renate approach the cycles of life? Was Elisabeth ever rebellious in her youth? How do their attitudes change when they become widows?
12. Elisabeth often tells moments when "the bill came," and God delivered retribution. How does this point of view shape her decisions? Does Irene prove or disprove Elisabeths ideas about the rewards systems lurking in our destinies?
13. How do the novels characters feel about money? What does stinginess or extravagance indicate about their personalities? Who are the novels most prosperous characters, in literal or symbolic ways?
14. To what do you attribute Elisabeths longevity? What legacy has she left when she narrates her final, joyful scene?