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What We Inherit, What We Leave

Rosie Meadows, the improbably named narrator and heroine of Heir to the Glimmering World (Houghton Mifflin, $24) the new novel by Cynthia Ozick, is the furthest thing from an heiress. A motherless child with a callous, mendacious and irresponsible father, she knows from the dawn of her consciousness that she has poor expectations and stands to inherit nothing. In time, her father leaves her an adolescent orphan with an apparently worthless legacy in the form of a torn, stained children’s book—about a character known as The Bear Boy—and a pair of men’s shoes. Neither can help her stake a claim on life.

But Ozick implies further meanings of the word “heir” by alluding to its homophones. For this heir is much like that Victorian icon, Jane Eyre. Forced by circumstance to become the amanuensis to a tragic and displaced German Jewish family, Rosie brings watchfulness, patience and compassion to her post. With the grounded acceptance of one who sees that having no choice is a matter of endurance rather than passivity, she observes the mysterious plots and passions of the Mitwisser family, educating herself in the lessons of the human heart. But unlike Jane Eyre, her triumph is not through marriage to her brooding employer, but through forging her own path as a working woman in the beckoning, glimmering world: “…modernity had granted the chance of untethered motion to my own sex. It was not my destiny to be planted in a single spot of the earth, like that other discarded amanuensis of another century, Dorothea Casaubon….” Ultimately, Rosie’s story tells us, there are certain nonnegotiable realities to which we are all heir; gender, time and place. Born in 1915, Rosie is fated to endure the Depression. But by being born in America, she is spared the exile and terror that the Mitwissers suffer as they lose status, possessions, community and sanity in their flight from Berlin. And by the end of the story, she sees that being born a woman limits her options, but constrains her slightly less than it would have in a previous time.

Ozick contrasts Rosie’s meager portion with the vast fortune bequeathed to a genuine heir, James A’Bair. Used by his father as the visual model and inspiration for The Bear Boy, James inherits riches beyond measure from the royalties of these phenomenally popular children’s books. But this wealth cannot spare him from emotional impoverishment, being used as an object instead of protected and nurtured into growth. As James’s and Rosie’s fates become entangled and disentangled, each must consider the benefits and impediments of their own and others’ endowments. James succumbs to despair. Rosie strikes her blow for freedom. It is not the privileged man who thrives, but the disenfranchised young woman.

Rosie’s strength of character is the result of many factors, Ozick shows us, not only her genetic and monetary endowments, but how she rallies her resources to create her own destiny. Fortune is earned, not bequeathed to you. The mature Rose, looking back from an undefined moment after her struggles are over, recounts these events of her youth. Her dignified voice has the gravity of a person reading her own last will and testament. The reader is heir to her glimmering story.

Robin Rogera writer and psychotherapist in Toronto, edits The Literary Review of Canada and Ars Medica, A Journal of Medicine, The Arts and Humanities.