So I recently just finished reading Heir to a Glimmering World or The Bear Boy, as its known in the UK. I originally picked it up because the inside flap of the book and the back cover were FULL of praises for the author, Cynthia Ozick. I know that it’s a pretty typical promotional strategy for books, but for some reason, the reviews for her were pretty stand-out and I felt compelled to check out her book. After finishing her book and googling her online, she actually is a pretty celebrated American author. So I guess it was good that I picked up a book of hers. Anyways, now to the spoiler-filled review.
Heir to a Glimmering World actually starts out okay. The story begins somewhat in the middle and then goes back to the beginning of the narrator’s (Rose) life. She grew up with a pretty neglectful and foolish father and as a result, grew into a pretty lonely and dissatisfied person. She ends up moving in with an older distant cousin, Betram, when her father decides to leave her and live in the school he worked at. Betram is not really related to Rose, but his motherly actions and nice behaviour (he even pays for her schooling) causes at least some happiness for Rose which eventually blooms into a crush (despite the almost 20 yrs age gap). But her happiness with Betram is short-lived as he falls in love with a crazy, opportunistic communist tomboy, Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards as she puts it), who rants about the evils of capitalism and materialism all day, every day. Ninel dislikes Rose and has Betram kick her out. So Rose finds employment with this immigrant German family.
I guess this is where the story begins. The family is made up of an authoritative older sister who basically takes care of the house, three rambunctious younger brothers, a toddler sister, the professor father, and the former physicist mother. As the story takes place during the early 30’s, the German family, who were apparently really rich in Germany, had to flee due to Hitler’s rise, were ‘rescued’ by some Quakers (?) and arrived in America. The family is too poor to even really afford Rose, let alone buy nice food, but due to their benefactor, they’re able to live ok. The benefactor, James, we find out, is a young, rich, bohemian boy who goes around trying to run from his past and becomes drawn to the German Mitwisser family. Much like the real life Christopher Robin from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, James was the inspiration for his father’s famous and wildly successful ‘Bear Boy’ stories. Embittered with having his childhood stolen and his somewhat neglectful parents, James grew up to become a wanderer, using his inherited fortune to live a life free from responsibility or pressure. He backpacks and travels the world, trying to find some anchor or happiness and discovers the Mitwisser’s in a hotel. He originally becomes a volunteer tutor for the three Mitwisser boys before becoming friends with the family, moving in with them from time to time (James has the tendency to leave often, but he does try to send cash to the family from time to time), and then becoming their benefactor. The entire Mitwisser family seems to love James (and he really likes them too — they intrigue him and he genuinely enjoys being with them because he can control them with his riches) except for the mother, Mrs. Mitwisser. Steadily loosing her mind in America and used to the riches of her German life, Mrs. Mitwisser has an extremely difficult time with James money’s, dislikes him intensely, and hence resolves to disrupt his control (it’s kinda interesting because the book implies that James sees the family as a sort of play-thing and this is further supported by the description of their house as ‘doll-like’ but you have to read between the lines to get to this part because the book initially makes it seem like Mrs. Mitwisser is the crazy one).
Rose enters this family and attempts to navigate it with her disinterested personality. Eventually, shit happens, like James running away with the oldest daughter (who is still a minor btw with an age gap between them), the professor losing himself over his grief on his failed current life position (being a high ranking professor in Germany vs. being a refugee immigrant with no job prospects or respect in America) and his daughter’s disappearance, and Mrs. Mitwisser getting better as her husband worsens. Eventually Bertram appears, Rose’s crush on him disappears, he becomes opportunistic, and the daughter returns home.
Honestly speaking, I didn’t really like the book that much. It just felt so…unresolved? So superficial almost? I mean, nothing really happens and Rose really isn’t an extremely engaging character. She literally doesn’t care much for the family. This is especially contrasted when Bertram comes along to live with the Mitwisser’s. Betram cooks, cleans, does the laundry, disciplines the children, and talks to Mrs. Mitwisser, compared to Rose just listening to Mrs. Mitwisser and occasionally helping out Mr. Mitwisser by being his typist. The characters in the book remark upon this too. The only time Rose seems to really shine, is in the beginning when she picks herself up and learns to fend for herself in order to prove a point to her neglectful father and when she attempts to keep up the hopes and comfort Mr. Mitwisser over his grief. Other times, she literally just exists and does nothing. I honestly couldn’t even really discern what she felt for the family. She just tolerated them I guess?
And in terms of writing, the book was mostly from Rose’s POV. But there were a few chapters, in the middle of the book of all places, that were from James POV. But there wasn’t really a clear marker of distinction and so the reader literally had to read about halfway and realize that there was a different POV/ different story being told. I mean, it wasn’t that bad, but it could’ve been better. Similarly, there was a lot, and I mean A LOT of philosophical, religious discussions. Mr. Mitwisser was a professor of Karaite Judaism and hence interacted with a lot of religions (Hinduism was discussed a lot) and the end result is a mixing of the religions and a lot of philosophical talk. If you’re into that kind of stuff, then I guess it would probably appeal to you. But, I’m really not into that stuff and it didn’t appeal to me so I resolved to just skim/ skip those parts. And the story itself isn’t really riveting or anything. At least not to me.
I will say however, that the writing is pretty good. Ms. Ozick has a flair for writing really nice descriptive sentences that stay with you, at least they did for me. And a few scenes really stick out as well. But honestly, that probably the best thing about the book, the writing. Otherwise, the characters are kinda stale and some of them aren’t even that fleshed out (we literally learn nothing about the brothers), the plot doesn’t really do much and there isn’t too much of an emotional connect with the characters or situation. Idk, maybe I ended up missing the whole point of the novel though my lack of philosophical understanding, but I didn’t find the novel as enjoyable as I hoped I did.
My rating: Read it if you like small character studies and philosophical/ big ideas, but you probably wouldn’t miss anything by skipping it either.