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.