Heir to the Glimmering World

Written by Cynthia Ozick
Review by B. J. Sedlock

History is less important than character in this literary novel. 1930s New York provides the setting for a penniless refugee family fleeing the Nazis. Professor Mitwisser studies an ancient Jewish sect called the Karaites, which emphasizes scripture rather than rabbinic interpretation of it. Rose Meadows, recently orphaned, has nowhere else to go, and applies for a post as Mitwisser’s assistant. But the Mitwisser household is no refuge for the homeless—they are equally rootless. After months with no salary, Rose learns that their entire income is dependent on the handouts of an absent benefactor, James, who, she is told, was once the children’s tutor. Mrs. Mitwisser, a noted scientist in her homeland, is so depressed at the family’s being “parasites” that she takes to her bed.

Eventually, James comes to visit, and Rose learns that as a child he was the model for his father’s world-famous children’s books about the Bear Boy. He has rejected the legacy by being a drifter and giving his wealth away. But the Mitwissers pay a price for James’ generosity, when more than one life is ruined as a result.

Multiple themes of parasitism abound: homeless Rose living off the Mitwissers, the Mitwissers off James’s money, James’s father milking his childhood for gain. Also alienation: the plight of 1930s German intellectuals living in an alien America, James alienating himself from his heritage, Rose feeling out of place in the Mitwissers’ world. Complex themes, numerous multifaceted characters, and the odd cliffhanging plot element create echoes of a Victorian novel in the reader’s mind. I admired Ozick’s craft, but could not warm to the characters, and finished the book not feeling much empathy for them and their various fates.