Leisurely family saga from second-novelist McMullan (When Warhol Was Still Alive, 1994), who dawdles her way through the history of a clan of Austrian refugees.
People who survive great tragedies rarely like to talk about them afterward. Here, the case in point is the de Bazsi family, aristocratic Viennese converts to Catholicism (from Judaism) who emigrated just before WWII to England and later to the US. Most of their story is told by Jenny, who was a schoolgirl during the war, in response to the repeated queries by her daughter Elizabeth, who grew up in Mississippi and Illinois. Jenny is a classic Austrian of the old school: devoutly Catholic, educated and cultured, she grew up revering the Hapsburg monarchy and like her parents held Protestant Germans somewhat in disdain. Her father, a factory owner and history professor at the university, was openly anti-fascist, but the family was able to leave in 1938 because the Nazis mistakenly believed that they had high contacts in the Vatican. Elizabeth, like many first-generation Americans, is fascinated by her family’s past and wants to dwell on the aspects of it that her parents were happy to leave behind—particularly their original religion, which to her mother’s sorrow she has begun to practice with her Jewish boyfriend. The trinkets and heirlooms of their life in the Old World, especially the memoirs of Elizabeth’s grandfather and the family silver, become the organizing metaphors of the story, which is narrated in alternate chapters by Jenny and Elizabeth. As in all family sagas, there is a generation gap here: Elizabeth presses for details of the war years and later partly because she understands the era quite differently than her mother does. But, of course, she wasn’t there. They make a kind of peace in the end.
Rambling and badly organized: an interesting tale that simply spreads itself too thin.