Saturday, March 18, 2006

Heir to the Glimmering World*Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick’s “Heir to the Glimmering World is a coming of age novel cleverly disguised as a novel of ideas. This book will satisfy both readers who love a good plot and those finicky word and style geeks who seem to be annoyed at any novel which follows a straight line. The story follows the inclusion of Rose Meadows into the Mitwisser household- a family of scholars (and Jews) escaping from Germany in the early part of the Nazi era. Rose is a feisty, bookish, orphan from a nowhere town in upstate New York who takes the first job available to her because it promises to bring her to The City.
The Pater Familias, Rudolf, is a history scholar who is so obsessed with his field of study that he finds it easy to neglect his family. He hires Rose to help with his research on an obscure branch of Jewish mystics called the Karaites. Though Rose actually spends most of her time caring for the family’s mentally fragile mother, she soon becomes infected with Mitwisser’s scholarly mania.
Also obsessed by the Professor’s strange passion is James A’Bair, a wealthy gadabout who becomes the family’s patron. James is “the Bear Boy,” once a model for his father’s world-beloved series of children’s books. Like Rose, he is also searching for his place in the world, struggling to shake off the idealized image that exists of him as a child. At first an unseen benefactor to the Mitwisser family, James eventually arrives to live with them and sow increased disorder within the already tenuous family structure.
In the quest for purpose, though, it is Rose who is the ‘heir’ to the glimmering world, which refers, naturally, to the world of books. The refuge of literature is offered not only in the professor’s scholarly tomes, but also in the novels that distract Mrs. Mitwisser from her discontented ravings, and in the reading room of the New York Public Library. This is a book about books, but it is not too clever in its literary layerings to also tell a good story. Though wry, agile and wise enough to lift us out of our own lives, this book doesn't once dodge the brutal truths of the world we live in.

The Riders* Tim Winton

Fred Scully’s life is turned upside-down by secrets. In the opening chapters of Tim Winton’s, The Riders, Scully doggedly repairs a derelict old farmhouse in the Irish hinterlands while he waits for his wife and seven year old daughter to settle up the family’s accounts in Australia. The three of them had spent the prior two years traveling around Greece, Paris, and London- Scully picking up any profession he could to support his wife’s ever changing artistic endeavors. When Scully travels to the airport to pick the two of them up, however, only his daughter, Billie, is there. His wife has vanished.
The remainder of the book follows Scully and Billie’s frantic search to uncover Jennifer’s whearabouts, and the secrets that might have made her leave.
At this point the novel takes on the tone of a fast past thriller in which mysteries are lurking beneath the everyday surface of the characters’ lives. The solid, easygoing, trusting nature of Scully’s character is broken apart and everything that he once trusted (his wife, her love for him, their friends, even his love for her) becomes shadowy and insubstantial. As Scully and Billie fly frenetically about the continent, they begin to question not only the reasons for Jennifer’s defection, but also the reality of their own past- was their entire existence a lie? had they missed the truth all along?
The Riders is ultimately a meditation on love- when it is too much, when it is not enough, when it is real. Scully had dedicated the entire purpose of his existence to his love for Jennifer and when she abandoned him, he is left adrift, with only his daughter to anchor him.
The beauty of this book is that the readers, too, are adrift. Winton’s prose is lucid and mesmerizing, but the action and the explaination of the novel are all kept deliberately murky. It is never clear either to the readers or to Scully what might be truth and what is his own paranoid dillusion. Like the eponymous ‘riders’ of the title, Scully spends his entire life waiting (for Jennifer, for the answers, for love) and we wait right along with him until both he, and we, must discover our own truths in the end.