The Empress of Weehawken

Irene Dische

FSG 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2017 http://dannyreviews.com/
The daughter of a bourgeois Rhineland family, Catholic and with aristocratic pretensions, Elisabeth marries the Jewish surgeon Carl, after a Great War "nurse meets doctor" encounter (and his conversion), and becomes Frau Professor Doctor Rother. So begins the story of three generations of women, told by Elisabeth looking back over her life. The Empress of Weehawken covers a broad canvas, but is held together by the consistent and compelling voice of the narrator, who is in many ways quite unpleasant — bigoted, self-centred, controlling — but who is also charming, funny and insightful, and who becomes a familiar and comfortable host.

The first sixty pages describe events in pre-war Germany, which makes a fascinating setting, but Elisabeth is only peripherally interested in politics and her story is dominated by family relationships: with her wilful and independent-minded daughter Renate, with her Nazi siblings, with her Jewish in-laws, and with the housemaid Liesel, who in many ways comes to rule the family. The family's escape to America, the cultural shocks they face there, and their experience as migrants in New Jersey are similarly only background to the people: Carl's patron and lover Margie, Renate's marriage to the most unsuitable Dische (not just a scientist, but Jewish to boot), and attempts to discipline the grandchildren, the rebellious Irene and the studious little Carl. And then come the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, bringing hippiedom and international travel and new ways for children to come to loggerheads with their parents — and grandparents and step-parents.

All of this is presented entirely in character, with no authorial intrusions or other digressions. Ostensibly the narrative is written by Elisabeth, addressing Irene:

"Because this gory little narrative concerns my granddaughter, the hows and whys of her, a kind of True Confession I have decided to write for her since she has just reached a spot that is as lonely as a vacuum. Her conscience is in there with her. She has A Lot on it. She is not entirely to blame. She had terrible role models: her mother and her father. And she was, by nature, not well equipped morally. Really, all the bad qualities that could be cooked up in the family genes were served to Irene. I will get to these, but not as an excuse. Because one can overcome, make the best of what one has."

But The Empress of Weehawken is, of course, actually Irene Dische's tribute to her grandmother. How much of it is fiction I don't know, but I found it powerful and moving; it perhaps resonated with me because it was recommended to me by my own grandmother, some of whose experiences must have mirrored its narrator's.

January 2017

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%T The Empress of Weehawken
%A Dische, Irene
%I FSG
%D 2007
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780374299125
%P 307pp