Ozick's many-layered novel, set in 1935, is built on contradictions, beginning with her choice of narrator. A formidable intellectual and brilliant writer whose essays and novels have received numerous international awards, Ozick tells her story in the voice of Rose, a naïve, lonely 18-year-old of haphazard education in upstate New York. The novel has the dramatic structure of Dickens and the Brontes, the Victorian writers Rose loves, but its thematic milieu is wholly modern, exploring the clash of European intellectualism and American materialism, and the incomprehensible evil and upheaval of Nazism.
"Frau Mitwisser led me into a tiny parlor so dark that it took some time before her face, small and timid as a vole's, glimmered into focus."
Rose, from a future, matured vantage point, opens her narrative with this day. On her own at 18, she has answered an ad in the Albany paper for some amorphous position with this German-Jewish refugee family. Her parents are dead, her mother long ago, her father recently, and her cousin Bertram (her first, and unrequited, love) is about to abandon her for a radical communist, Ninel.
Taking refuge among the family of refugees, Rose remains isolated. Professor Mitwisser is a scholar and a larger-than-life figure, at least at first: "I was conscious of a force, of a man accustomed to dictating his conditions." Mrs. Mitwisser, too, was once a woman of standing; a scientist who worked with Schrödinger, though she got no credit for his Nobel Prize, despite her contribution. Now, unhinged by events, she keeps to her bed, neglecting her children. The three boys are interchangeable hellions, the baby, Waltraut, is largely ignored, and the eldest daughter, Anneliese, is bossy and aloof.
The Mitwissers were rescued by Quakers who found the professor a position teaching about an obscure Christian sect, the Charismites. But the professor's field is not the Charismites but the Karaites, an obscure, heretic Jewish sect that held to a literal interpretation of the Bible. It is some time before Rose understands that in Europe "they had esteemed him because no one knew what he knew. And here - now - he was scorned for the same reason: no one knew what he knew."
In an irony that will be missed by many readers since Ozick does not allude to it even though her narrator is recalling these events years later, the Karaites were spared by Hitler who decided that their heresy made them non-Jews. Some even participated in the Holocaust.
Rose, of course, has never heard of the Karaites (or the Charismites). Her first task is to box up the professor's library because a mysterious benefactor has rescued them from Albany and arranged for a move to New York so the professor can continue his scholarship at the city's library.
The books are in German and Hebrew, so Rose, ignorant of both languages, boxes them in the most efficient way - by size. The professor, outraged (" `This is how an intelligent creature organizes scholarship? By how tall and how short?'"), assigns (or, rather, orders Anneliese to assign) a simpler task - caring for the baby.
By the time the family has moved to New York - only it's not New York; it's the Bronx and the weedy outskirts at that - Rose is also caring for Mrs. Mitwisser and typing for the professor in the evening. She suspects Mrs. Mitwisser might not be "truly mad," but instead answering "disorder with disorder, fracture with fracture," and prides herself on finding a palliative - Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility." "Mrs. Mitwisser understood all of this very well; it glimmered with unfamiliar familiarity; none of it was beyond her comprehension." And when the Dashwoods' fortunes fell, "she warmed to the affinities she instantly felt: the loss of money, the necessity of money, the hope of money; standing expectation, repute."
But in the next chapter Mrs. Mitwisser has ripped the book to shreds. The mysterious benefactor, James, has arrived, showering the family with presents, filling the house with laughter. Only Mrs. Mitwisser hates him and fears his corrupting influence. Even little, bewildered Waltraut blossoms in his presence, basking in unaccustomed attention.
But Rose, too, has doubts. James tipples whiskey in his teacup and usurps her place in the study. The gleaming new typewriter he bought sits in a closet. Yes, he has paid her salary, but she has little use for money.
She misses those steamy summer nights in the professor's study, where "little by little his cause was revealed to me. Boiling rebellion was Mitwisser's subject. He was drawn to schismatics, fiery heretics, apostates - the lunatics of history." But after James' arrival, Rose begins to see something of George Eliot's Casaubon in the professor. Is he striving mightily and achieving little? Only pretending to strive? Does his life's work amount to anything?
James A'Bair is himself a puzzle. He is the Bear Boy, subject of picture books his father so famously and lucratively created. He hates the books that usurped his childhood, hates the money he so lavishly bestows on others. But why has he chosen the Mitwissers? Does he admire the Professor's scholarship or the family's cohesion? Does he sympathize with their plight or desire to corrupt them, as Mrs. Mitwisser believes?
These questions, and many more, are raised and some even answered in the course of this eventful novel. I haven't even touched on Rose's inheritance of the first Bear Boy book or the return of Bertram into Rose's life, or done justice to Anneliese whose self-possession conceals so much. But the narrative takes a couple jogs sideways to provide some needed explication of James. Several third person sections, told from his viewpoint, jar a bit. Isn't this Rose's story, written in reflection? Then are the James digressions her own invention; her explanation for events? If not, how did they come to be?
Quibbles aside, this is a rich, deep, lovely book, full of story and thought, layers of meaning and ache and cruelty and love. Selfishness and manipulation prove sometimes beneficial, but self-deception is always a mistake. It's a book that can be read on many levels, all rewarding.