Joseph Brill, a middle-aged bachelor, is the Principal of a school somewhere in the provincial US. He is very proud of his school, because he was the one to be chosen from the start to be a Principal, he prepared the Dual Curriculum (revolutionary, or so he hopes), and he is fighting with the parents for his vision of the school. He is so engrossed in his dreams that he has even an image of a perfect student in his head.
Brill, born in a Jewish family in Paris, studied astronomy in France before World War II, and survived the Holocaust mainly in hiding - first in a convent, where the nuns put him in a cellar full of books (where he discovered a patron for his school, Edmond Fleg, and reinforced his philosophical inclinations), and then in a peasant's barn. His parents and most of his siblings (except for his three much older sisters) were killed, and he finally emigrated to the United States. His childhood, youth and the years in hiding are shown as a series of images, which shaped his personality and are a tool to explain to the reader why he is who he is.
When Brill gets a new first-grader, Beulah Lilt, a daughter of a scholar Hester Lilt (a very strong, self-confident and educated woman, a great female character), he gets extremely excited at the prospect of having finally a genius in his school. Fascinated by the mother, he tries to understand her, engaging in discussions and verbal duels, convinced, that she is the only person on his real level, while otherwise (he is afraid) he is surrounded by mediocrity. Unfortunately, Beulah is not a student, which would be noticed by any of the teachers for her brightness - they rather remark on her inattentiveness, her daydreaming and lack of eagerness. Finally, Brill gives up (especially that he cannot keep up with the mother, who is sarcastic and does not care about him at all), and immerses (still dreaming of intellectual pursuits, but somehow getting stuck in a vicious circle) himself in mediocrity, marrying an administrative assistant and producing a school genius himself. His son fulfills all his dreams of an ideal student.
In the meantime, Beulah finishes the school and moves to Paris with her mother. And Brill probably would forget all about her if he did not see her on television one day and see how badly he was mistaken and how his fixation on stereotype has failed to help him discover a talent.
Cynthia Ozick analyzed the main character very acutely, in a novel, which does not have any spare words. Her prose is very dense, very clear, and the novel is compact, formally perfect. There are probably many parallels to her own life in Brills life events, a Jewish theme being recurrent in her books. I (being Polish) did not like the constant referrals to the concentration camps and Holocaust as "being killed in Poland", "being moved to Poland" without any mention of Nazis - perhaps such descriptions contributed to the absurd belief, for a time common in America, that Poland was responsible for Holocaust. I somehow am not sure it was an accidental omission, not by a writer so analytical and careful in all the other respects.
Having said that, I must say that this novel is a very strong piece of fiction, very universal, reflection-stimulating and intriguing.