A family of German Jewish refugees, the orphaned girl who becomes their servant, and the troubled son of a children’s author coexist uneasily in Ozick’s fifth novel (The Puttermesser Papers, 1997, etc.).
In one of its matching narratives, young Rose Meadows, alone after the death of her vain, underachieving father, is hired by Professor Rudolf Mitwisser as nanny and housemaid to his listless wife Elsa and their five children. But the Mitwissers are as impecunious as they are imperious and dictatorial. No salary is forthcoming, and Rose soon learns that Mitwisser’s arcane researches into the history of an obscure “heretical” Jewish sect (the Karaites), opposed to rabbinical interpretation of scripture, have earned him only a materially unrewarding academic sinecure. Rose also discovers the connection between the Mitwissers and chronic itinerant James A’bair, whose own narrative discloses the commercial success of his father’s beloved creation the “Bear Boy,” his lifelong attempts to escape the prisons of family fame and wealth, and his serendipitous acquaintance with the Mitwissers—resulting both in his generosity to them and his “theft” of their teenaged daughter Anneliese. Ozick delineates with passion and precision Rose’s immersion in the “glimmering world” of intellectual preoccupation that her employers do and do not incarnate, resisting the pull of the prewar outside world—deftly represented by Rose’s importunate “cousin” Bertram and his beloved, a fiery radical self-named “Ninel (“Lenin” spelled backwards). The thematic and narrative content here are almost forbiddingly rich and do slow the action. But the characterizations are acute—notably that of matriarch Elsa, once a distinguished scientist and a former colleague and intimate of Nobel-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger (who may be her eldest child’s father), sunk in a slough of disorientation and depression.
Perhaps the fullest fictional treatment yet of the European intellectual’s flight from Hitler’s Germany—to safety, and, ironically, to inconsequence—in America. One of Ozick’s most interesting and challenging books.