Heir to the Glim­mer­ing World

  • Review
By – October 26, 2011

Upstate New York and the out­er Bronx of the 1930’s, the set­tings of Cyn­thia Ozick’s Heir to the Glim­mer­ing World, are much like this novel’s char­ac­ters. Past their pros­per­i­ty and aspi­ra­tions, the grit­ty towns near Albany, many bear­ing proud clas­sic names, main­tain alle­giance to van­ished pur­pose, shop­worn ele­gance, and, in the face of all this, a thread of hope and dignity. 

The sto­ry opens when the nar­ra­tor, Rose Mead­ows, answers an ad in the Albany Star. The job descrip­tion is vague — assis­tant— but promis­es relo­ca­tion to New York City with Pro­fes­sor Rudolf Mitwiss­er and his fam­i­ly: his dis­ori­ent­ed wife, a pro­fes­sor who worked with Erwin Schrödinger in Ger­many; three unruly boys Amer­i­can­ized as Hank, Bill and Jer­ry; and a tod­dler tend­ed by her old­er sis­ter, who man­ages the brood. Rose, orphaned in her teens, has lit­tle to leave behind — her dis­rep­utable dead father, a dis­tant cousin now hope­less­ly entranced by his tough-talk­ing Com­mu­nist lover, and no prospects. 

The Mitwissers escaped Ger­many at the invi­ta­tion of a small Quak­er col­lege in Albany that mis­took the professor’s spe­cial­ty as the Charais­mites, not the Karaites, an obscure Jew­ish sect, and offered him a job. He and his fam­i­ly are res­cued from this unhap­py sit­u­a­tion by James A’Bair. James is heir to vast roy­al­ties from the books in which his despised and dis­tant father por­trayed him in Christo­pher Robin-like sto­ries that trapped James in a per­ma­nent and dis­abling child­hood he will nev­er escape. 

 Ozick brings every­one togeth­er in an iso­lat­ed lit­tle house in the Bronx. Mitwiss­er unpacks his books and dic­tates to Rose; the boys run wild; Elsa Mitwiss­er with­draws; and James and Anneliese, the old­er daugh­ter, even­tu­al­ly decamp togeth­er. Out of nowhere, Rose’s dis­tant cousin Bertram turns up, broke and bro­ken. He finds his call­ing in the house­hold, and at once it buzzes with effi­cien­cy and orga­ni­za­tion, fueled by envelopes of cash that James dis­patch­es now and then as he and Anneliese tour upstate New York in an ever-down­ward spiral.

Read­ers who come to this nov­el from Ozick’s Put­ter­mess­er Papers and The Shawl will find a dif­fer­ent voice here, although one still rich and imag­i­na­tive. The pub­lish­er describes the nov­el as pay­ing homage to the great 19th-cen­tu­ry writ­ers, among them Dick­ens. And in the sprawl­ing fam­i­ly, the recur­ring inter­ven­tion of coin­ci­dence, and the cast of mis­matched char­ac­ters — includ­ing a mem­o­rable cameo by a dis­placed schol­ar of Hin­duism now a tai­lor in Brook­lyn— we see the resem­blance. Much as we learn about Ozick’s char­ac­ters, how­ev­er, we do not feel with them, except, per­haps, Rose. They are the vehi­cle the nov­el rides. Cir­cum­stance, not moti­va­tion, dri­ves the action. The sto­ry charges ahead, nev­er fal­ter­ing, and ends with a twist that offers hope and a future to almost every­one — the vision of the glim­mer­ing world. 


Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions