The Empress of Weehawken

Farrar, Straus and Giroux  2007


Irene Dische’s new novel follows the Rother family from their escape from Nazi Germany to their new life in America. At the novel’s center is Frau Rother, the larger-than-life, devoutly Catholic, and utterly acerbic narrator, who is writing her own memoir. Frau Rother holds strong and unpopular opinions, and yet is a marvelously captivating storyteller. The novel begins in 1930’s Germany, where Frau Rother and her husband, Carl, a well-liked doctor, enjoy aristocratic status. Carl, a Jew, had converted to Catholicism voluntarily as a younger man, but the Nazis still manage to track him down. With the help of his and their young daughter Renate abscond to the States soon after.

Once the family settles down in Weehawken, New Jersey, their next series of adventures begin. Frau Rother spends most of her life living vicariously through the struggles of her daughter and eventually her granddaughter, trying to keep her family unified. The novel takes a comprehensive look at both local and international landscapes during the post-war years, as the plot weaves its way in and out of five different continents. Dische offers many glimpses into the complicated terrain of Jewish identity. Even though this sprawling, energetic novel is told by a narrator with a tough, biting exterior, at its core, The Empress of Weehawken is an incredibly tender and capacious work.

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