The Empress of Weehawken

Irene Dis­che
  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

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.

Phil Sandick is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. He has taught cours­es in lit­er­a­ture, com­po­si­tion, and cre­ative writ­ing since 2006. Phil is cur­rent­ly study­ing rhetoric and com­po­si­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na-Chapel Hill.

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