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Bookmarks Issue: 
13-Nov-Dec-2004
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The histories, cultures, and lives of displaced people intersect during the 1930s Depression. It starts when 18-year-old Rose Meadows, orphaned and newly abandoned by a distant cousin, answers an ad for an undefined job in an Albany newspaper. She goes off to live with her new employers the Mitwisser family, who are recent German-Jewish refugees. The group soon moves to a remote Bronx neighborhood in a house given to them by a benefactor interested in Rudolf Mitwisser’s studies of the arcane Karaites, a heretical 9th-century sect of Jews.

In these new surroundings, Rose, who lives life with her nose in Victorian novels, navigates through a suspicious, chaotic household. She helps the obsessive Rudolf with his research and becomes nurse and nanny to his untidy brood: five wild children and the demented former physicist wife, Elsa. As Rose takes on the Herculean task of reorganizing their lives, she narrates the family’s imminent emotional and financial chaos. Then she meets James A’bair, millionaire heir to his father’s Bear Boy books (based on himself) and unreliable patron to the Mitwissers. Always Bear Boy and never James, he’s ever in search of the "glimmering world"—and himself. Heir is a tragically funny social commentary on scholarly study, faith, identity, and survival in the "glimmering world."
Houghton Mifflin. 320 pages. $24. ISBN: 0618470492

Critical Themes

Living the classics: An orphaned girl applies for a position as a shabby governess—really an indentured servant—in a mysterious household. Is it Jane Eyre? Yes and no. Ozick draws elements from Victorian fiction: cliffhangers, disappearing and reappearing characters, tragicomic plots, and elaborate coincidences. Rose devours and applies the classics, from Jane Eyre to Middlemarch, to her life. But Ozick brings the 19th-century novel up to date by writing about Bronx Jews in the 1930s. And, make no mistake: Rose is no Victorian lady.

… and the children’s classics: A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books also inspired Heir. James A’bair’s father wrote the successful Bear Boy books, which depicted his son as a furry little animal. James, who lived "the preposterous future of a fabled child," is now all grown (and messed) up, and living an invented life. Some critics see the Bear Boy books as brilliant and authentic; others view Sixteen Times Two is Thirteen Midnights as a "leaden counterpart to Now We Are Six" (New York Times). And James, the living remnant of his father’s success, is debatable as a fully realized character.

And, if that’s not enough, some serious scholarship: Professor Mitwisser studies the Karaites, a mystical Jewish sect of scriptural fundamentalists (heretics, really) who opposed the Talmud. A few critics think we’re told too little about the Karaites; some think they overpower the story; still others see their role as quite inspired. But, it’s not clear if Mitwisser is a brilliant or incoherent sage. Ozick’s stance (she calls the Kairites "the lunatics of history") is clear. But, her narrative approach mirrors her circuitous subject: "What matters most are the elaborations, the aperçus, the second thoughts. … In short, [Ozick takes] a Talmudic approach to fiction, answering every question with another question" (Newsday).

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"… a delightful addition to an oeuvre characterized in large part by religious mysticism and magic. … Heir to the Glimmering World is a tour de force of a vision and voice that reflect a compassionate intelligence we are most fortunate to have in our world, which inevitably glimmers when Ozick gets hold of it." Jessica Treadway

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Here Ozick tones down the loftiness [of her previous novels and essays] to write at a more popular level. … There are several more layers of story and meaning and literary reference in Heir to the Glimmering World, and a literary theorist such as Ozick herself could probably spend a lifetime tweezing out meaning, but most readers will enjoy it as a satisfying, well-plotted novel—one of life’s old-fashioned pleasures, handily renewed." Natalie Danford

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Its vitality, droll wit and clever juggling of ideas affirm that this 76-year-old fabulist has lost none of her exceptional skills. … Chapters are mostly brisk and short; the bulk of scenes is confined to a single setting; and dialogue propels plot without sounding expository." Ariel Gonzalez

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Heir to the Glimmering World is both a chambered nautilus and a haunted house—a fairy tale with locked rooms, mad songs, secret books and stolen babies. … And the last thing Ozick seems to be saying in this brilliant apostrophe to shattered worlds is that ecstasy is overrated." John Leonard

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"One of the great pleasures of Ozick’s new novel—and there are many—is the way this taste for Talmudic disputation is woven into the very heart of the story. … A novel as scintillating as this one makes the world infinitely new, and it’s the reader—every writer’s ultimate heir—who walks away with the biggest fortune of all." James Marcus

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"The characters are wonderfully eccentric and original …" Mary J. Elkins

San Jose Mercury News 4 of 5 Stars
"However much her story might swirl into surprising new turns, Ozick never lets it become a what-will-these-loons-do-next tale. … Heir to the Glimmering World is a rich, chewy, nutty novel—dessert for the mind." Charles Matthews

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Lavish in invention and ideas, yet superbly controlled as a work of narrative art, Heir to the Glimmering World has all the hallmarks of a permanent work of literature." Merle Rubin

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Heir to the Glimmering World is about what happens when different worlds collide, when Old Europe meets the New World and the oppressed and privileged bump up against each other. … Ozick is an intellectual magpie, and she squeezes so much into this novel that it’s hard to tell which of her sparkly treasures should take precedence over the others." Sarah Coleman

Milwaukee Jrnl-Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"[T]he narrative, while intricate and coherent, challenges the reader’s credulity. … Though [Rose] speaks from a fictional present about a rather distant past, the reader learns nothing of who she became as the result of involvement with this eccentric family." Gordon Weaver

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The struggle is not only with the extravagant chaos of a household, but with what it more largely represents: European versus American culture, exile as a universal condition and the madness that scholarly zeal can incur at its extreme. … Elsa is initially the most puzzling, and eventually the most complex and significant figure in the book." Richard Eder

Baltimore Sun 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Eschewing sentimentality, she depicts her refugees as depressed, selfish and bitter, qualities befitting people who, torn from their home and their culture, have lost everything. … Rosie is a less-than-believable character." Joan Mellen

Critical Summary

Heir revisits many of Ozick’s trademark themes, which stem from her own heritage: European versus American culture, scholarly pursuits, cultural and class conflict, and exile, both real and imagined. As befitting an author of great intellectual range, Ozick exhibits extraordinary knowledge about her subjects, from Victorian literature and religious mysticism to Depression-era New York. Heir, a captivating, polished story about three sets of lives, resembles in its compassionate questioning of life the Jewish debates she invokes. It also, in its Victorian leanings, explores how modern misfits deal with issues of family, employment, love, and wealth—19th-century quandaries that somehow never disappeared. It’s a brilliant, witty novel, more streamlined than older Victorian formulas like Middlemarch. Heir is also less didactic and more accessible than some of Ozick’s other works.

Characters rather than plot drive Heir, but not all reviewers agree that the people measure up. Is James a strength or weakness? Does Rose grow as a person? Critics agree, however, that Elsa steals the show. The narrative technique also raises issues. Ozick alternates between Rose’s voice and James’s omniscient flashbacks. Yet, some see little relation between their two stories (outside of Rose’s coincidental ownership of a Bear Boy book) and the Mitwissers—perhaps playing into the theme of cultural clash. Finally, does Heir come together at the end or falter into convenient coincidences? Questions aside, Heir illuminates with great humor and humanity how psychologically or physically displaced people navigate through difficult times. If nothing exactly "glimmers," maybe that’s the point.