In her new novel, The Empress of Weehawken (FSG, $24), Irene Dische looks unsparingly at three generations of her family through the eyes of an unusual choice of narrator — her own grandmother. After an introductory warning — “My grandmother owes no one any explanations for her interpretation of events” — the anti- Semitic, self-absorbed, doctrinaire voice of the grandmother herself, Frau Professor Doktor Elisabeth Rother, takes over.
From her opening description of her only child — “It had grave flaws” — and granddaughter (a fictionalized version of the author) — “Really, all the bad qualities that could be cooked up in the family genes were served to Irene” — Elisabeth emerges as a uniquely captivating antiheroine. The story she relays about her family history seems indeed remarkable — and not just because she insists it is so! However, what stands out about the novel is her narration, which lingers like the flavor of the home-brewed raspberry spirits she saves for a special occasion that can never present itself to a woman who judges everyone and everything so harshly.
But, it becomes urgent to determine, is she a good person, this Frau Professor Doktor Elisabeth Rother? She speaks plainly about her comedown in the world as a Catholic aristocrat who marries Carl Rother, a converted Jewish doctor in a provincial part of Germany, but for such an Aryan snob, she expresses surprisingly little bitterness or remorse. Elisabeth is brazenly anti-Semitic — she can’t even say the word “jewelry” without cringing — but she shows real fondness for her husband’s Jewish relatives, taking them on in place of the family she left behind. Though she treats her daughter, Renate, cruelly, adoration clearly lurks beneath her discipline and insults, and the strict distance she maintains from her devoted housekeeper, Liesel, scarcely masks her growing trust. As Elisabeth’s life story crashes headlong into the rise of the Third Reich, how she behaves amidst the danger confronting her family with its now-illegal marriage and half-breed daughter answers this question clearly.
Middle-aged when she settles in suburban New Jersey to live out her days quietly, Elisabeth turns to passing judgment on her daughter and granddaughter, who come to lead the sorts of interesting lives she condemns with tinges of jealousy. The author obviously delights in assuming her grandmother’s voice and carries out the narration, especially of her own youth, with a great deal of panache. But this limited perspective is, at times, a drawback. The stories of Renate and Irene, strange characters who are perhaps as compelling as Elisabeth herself, never come alive as much as Elisabeth’s first-person account of herself. And though the secondary characters of Carl and Liesel are affecting, Elisabeth’s biased perspective distorts them, leaving the reader yearning for a bit of third-person omniscience to fill in the private motivations. How can Carl, a devout Catholic born a Jew, express anti-Semitism after losing his entire family to the Holocaust? Why does Liesel follow the woman who forbade her to have a family of her own?
Just as Elisabeth’s challenging personality cannot hide her love for her family, the book’s blunt narration does not keep the reader from the emotional core of her story. As her life draws to an unexpectedly moving close, the book’s lesson of finding true, family love in its various, sometimes off-putting guises becomes clear. If nothing else, Jewish readers will take solace that as difficult as the Jewish mother may be, her German-Catholic counterpart beats her hands down.
Tammy Hepps is a software developer living in New York.