No one knows the power of words better than a writer, and Cynthia Ozick is no exception. Her novel Heir to the Glimmering World is all about that power. Heir's heroine, Rose, is an orphan who lives with a distant relative after her father’s death. When the relative takes up with a radical (with the taken name of Ninel, in honor of Lenin), Rose is cast out of the house and takes a position with a family of German refugees. Her somewhat vague position is as assistant to the family’s patriarch, Professor Mitwisser, a staunch academic researcher who employs Rose to type his findings on bizarre, arcane topics.
The rest of the family includes his wife, a research scientist who has seemingly gone insane, four young children (including three rowdy boys) and his teenaged daughter, Anneliese. The entire family is under the mysterious thumb of a man named James A’Bair, the son of a famous author who was the inspiration for his father’s “Bear Boy” books. Bitter at being forced into a ridiculous celebrity, James wreaks havoc, and Rose has to sort out exactly what’s going on.
The story is a little too convoluted to be deeply engaging, but what is fascinating are Ozick’s meditations on the power of the pen. Words and books are a focus of nearly every character. Rose attempts to use Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility to teach Mrs. Mitwisser English, only to have her tear apart the book in a fit. James obsesses over his father’s books. Mitwisser obsesses over his research. And, to top it all off, a typewriter and a beat up old copy of a “Bear Boy” book are practically supporting characters. These people are wrapped up in the written word, and it can lead to both doom and salvation.
When Ozick focuses on her somewhat closed off characters, the book feels chilly. But when she focuses on their true sources of love and hate – words – Heir glimmers.