Ozick’s narrator, Rosie Meadows, an orphan, answers an ad in The Albany Star for an assistant to Rudolf Mitwisser, The scholar of Karaism, confessing that, at that time I had no idea what that meant, or why it should be the’ instead of a,’ or who Rudolf Mitwisser was.
Refugees from Germany, the Jewish Mitwissers have been rescued by the Quakers, and found by James A’Bair, heir to a fortune in royalties from his father’s children’s books about the Bear Boy. James is also a refugee of sorts, his real life having been usurped by the child in his father’s stories.
In the narrow three-story house at the end of the train line in the Bronx, the outcasts form a sort of family. It is the family that Ozick unravels and reveals, but Ozick, ever the scholar, is also interested in interpreting that family, the strange Jewish Karaites, and her narrator, Rosie.
Rosie begins to understand the depth of the family’s grief through Elsa Mitwisser, the wife whom she is assigned to care for. Elsa, a brilliant scientist, seems to have gone mad upon being expelled from her scientific job in Germany and exiled to America; but, as the story unfolds, Rosie realizes that Elsa is not mad but maddened by the circumstances of her life and her dependence on James, whom she deeply distrusts.
Ozick brilliantly captures characters in a brief line. She says of Elsa, She fixed on a single object as if she could see into its molecular structure.
Indeed her scientific training leads her to observe much about their benefactor that lurks beneath his casual and friendly surface.
The five Mitwisser children are also cast adrift. All except the eldest, Anneliese, seem confused and utterly untended to. These are the children whom James, upon his arrival, showers with gifts, leads into chaos and finally betrays by running off with Anneliese and leaving her pregnant.
Ozick has an uncanny ability to make life in the Bronx the collecting place for the world’s chaos. The Mitwissers cannot escape the events in Germany that have exiled them. Mitwisser knows that Devils lurked in those honored halls [of the German University], his own students, his own colleagues had ended as devils.
Nor can James free himself from the prison of the Bear Boy books, and he sets out to destroy the world his father created. Gambling away his first-edition copy of the first Bear Boy book, very coincidently to Rosie’s father in an empty schoolyard in upstate New York, he says of the author: I hated that man. You don’t want to keep what you hate.
Even Rosie, calm and efficient as she is, cannot escape the chaos. The Bear Boy book comes into her possession after her father’s death, and James comes into her life. She discerns his destructive power, but can do nothing to stem its tide.
While Rosie narrates much of the book, there are sections devoted to James’s life that are given distance through third-person narration. Ozick allows Rosie to interpret events and give them meaning, but James’s life is out of his control. The reader sees only what the narrator wishes. Thus James is often less than sympathetic; while his money provides comfort for the Mitwissers, his presence creates discord.
Ozick also conjures up a clear sense of Depression-era New York in Rosie’s cousin Bertram. While Bertram is not really her cousin, she has stayed with him for a semester while she studied at New York Teachers College. His life has been disrupted by Ninel, a Communist with whom he falls in love. She destroys his calm, gets him fired from his job, leaves him for the Spanish Civil War and dies, but not before Ozick has had several satiric jabs at her.
Bertram, without a job, without a home and without friends, finally lands on the Mitwissers’ doorstep in the Bronx. His sudden appearance counters the chaos that James, during his tenure, has caused. He brings calm to the household, returns Mrs. Mitwisser to sanity, Mr. Mitwisser to his books and Rosie to the possibility of a new life.
Finally Ozick, in a burst of romantic excess, creates a happy ending that would do justice to the Victorian domestic novel. All find a place in the New World, and Ozick gives each a chance to begin again.