The Empress of Weehawken [NOOK Book]

Overview

At the end of what is (she cannot help observing) an extraordinary life, Elisabeth Rother has decided to write her memoirs. She brushes aside her narrow escape with her Jewish husband from the Nazis, and the perilous voyage to the New World of New Jersey. The subject that really consumes her is the waywardness of her impossible daughter, Renate, and her granddaughter, Irene.

Renate performs autopsies on the bodies of politicians whom death has...

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The Empress of Weehawken

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Overview

At the end of what is (she cannot help observing) an extraordinary life, Elisabeth Rother has decided to write her memoirs. She brushes aside her narrow escape with her Jewish husband from the Nazis, and the perilous voyage to the New World of New Jersey. The subject that really consumes her is the waywardness of her impossible daughter, Renate, and her granddaughter, Irene.

Renate performs autopsies on the bodies of politicians whom death has harvested in the nighttime arms of their mistresses. Worse, she sleeps on unironed sheets. Irene drops out of school to roam the world, refuses to correct her nose with plastic surgery, and shows alarming signs of enjoying sex. What is to be done with such women?

A curiously touching love letter to the difficult but sustaining love of mothers and daughters, The Empress of Weehawken is a masterpiece of comedy with an unexpected lilt of redemption at its close.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Frau Professor Doktor Rother, the narrator of this brutally funny debut, is self-centered, cynical, sarcastic, fiercely proud of her Aryan heritage and incorrigibly anti-Semitic. As a German army nurse in WWI, Elizabeth Gierlich meets wealthy Jewish surgeon Carl Rother and marries him once he converts to Catholicism. They have a "racially impure" daughter, Renate, whom Elizabeth mocks and chastises relentlessly, even as she dotes on her. After the Nazis rise to power in Germany, life for Elizabeth's in-laws becomes precarious ("forced labor was not a high-earning profession"), and Carl's "honorary Aryan" status can't protect him from the SS once he irks them by protesting the forced sterilization of Jews. The Rothers flee to the "less-civilized world" of Weehawken, N.J., where Renate grows up, marries Jewish professor Dische, becomes a successful pathologist and has two children, a boy too intelligent for his own good and a rebellious daughter, Irene, whose adventures, tracked via letters and collect calls home, take her across the Middle East and Africa. Elizabeth dies in 1989, still outspoken and bigoted, and continues to meddle in her beloved daughter's life from Heaven. Dische evokes human failings so skillfully that readers will catch themselves laughing at mankind at its cruelest and darkest. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Three generations of unconventional women figure in this autobiographical novel from Dische (The Job, 2002, etc.). The boundaries separating fiction and memoir are cheerfully trampled by Elisabeth Rother, the author's real-life grandmother, whose narration-fictional, one assumes-maps a maze of recollections with plenty of wrong turns and cul-de-sacs (e.g., what "circumstances so demeaning" prompted granddaughter Irene to sell Elisabeth's heirloom jewelry?). A staunch Catholic of aristocratic Rhineland stock, young Elisabeth marries Carl, a Jewish doctor who at her insistence converts to Christianity. As Hitler's persecution of the Jews escalates from petty indignities to Final Solution, Carl finally heeds Elisabeth's warnings to flee to America. She follows later with daughter Renate, a talented pianist. Once ensconced in New York, Renate struggles to become a physician, meeting husband-to-be Dische in the course of her chemistry studies. A brilliant scientist but a deeply dysfunctional human being, the Jewish Dische is barely tolerated by the Rothers and merely a marginal presence in the lives of Irene and Little Carl. His children's destinies are controlled by Elisabeth and her faithful maid Liesel from the Rothers' suburban New Jersey stronghold. (Renate, a coroner, parents sporadically and incompetently.) Little Carl is a child genius and bookish recluse. Irene grows up wild in the '50s and '60s, gets kicked out of school as often as her forebears and experiments with hippiedom while avoiding sex and drugs. At 17, she explores Europe, then moves on to Libya, where she's stranded during Qaddafi's coup, and to Kenya, where she bluffs her way into a job with Louis Leakey, who thenshoehorns the high-school dropout into Harvard. Through it all, Elisabeth recounts the foibles and follies of her American descendants through befuddled but canny Old World eyes. Rambling and disjointed, but enthralling.
From the Publisher
"Frau Professor Doktor Rother is stubborn, hypochondriacal, devoid of the slightest sentimentality. . . . She is also, by the way, frighteningly funny. . . . I couldn't get enough of her life story—Irene Dische made me laugh at the shock of it all."—Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil

"An adrenaline-shot of a novel . . . The Empress of Weehawken is sharp as razors on the gradual entrapment of Jews in Germany. It's a classic immigration tale about a family's 'precarious union with America.'"—Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times

"This book does a number of things beautifully, even brilliantly. . . . The real grandeur of The Empress of Weehawken, however, lies in the narrator's voice. . . . Frau Rother is drawn as accurately as the slice of a surgeon's scalpel."—Amy Wilentz, Los Angeles Times

"The voice of the reprobate-empress here is pitch-perfect. Dische has captured this fictionalized grandmother . . . with pepper and grace."—Gail Caldwell, The Boston Globe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429933391
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 7/22/2008
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • File size: 325 KB

Meet the Author

Irene Dische's work has appeared in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, and her books, published in twenty-two countries, have included international bestsellers. She divides her time between Berlin and Rhinebeck, New York.

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Read an Excerpt


Excerpt Much of what went kaput, as the Americans say, in the generations after mine can be blamed on Carl’s low sperm count. He had murdered his men with heroism, the exact details later. As a result, he only managed one child. And that was the wrong sex. We tried and tried for another. He would plant himself inside me and till away. He worked hard, grunting and sweating—he was not a lazybones. Afterward, I remained on my back, hoisting my legs in the air over my head, the soles of my feet touching in prayer. God did not hear my prayers. When nothing had come of our efforts for more than five years, and our child was already in school, I said, “Carl, according to the laws of the Church, one does this to make children. According to the Church, if it’s not to make children, then you Must Not.” Carl had arguments up his sleeve about procreation as a form, with or without content, developed by God along with prayer as a ritual to be repeated as often as possible. His faith was deep and I loved him, and believed him, although my body didn’t. Then one day, when I showed reluctance, he said, “The ancient Jews were commanded to lie with each other on the Sabbath, because the high point brought them closest to God.” “Jews!” I snorted. “Not everything about the Jews is bad,” he said. He was apologetic, a rare occurrence. I sulked for a while, and allowed him to take me again, it was my duty. I was gaining weight. Soon there was so much of me that it was hard to say where I began or ended, and he became discouraged, and left me alone. Even a surgeon can be surprised by the human body. The fact is that when we met, I was beautiful. I was the pinnacle of female beauty in our family; after that, it was downhill. Do not laugh at my conceit—I am being objective. In the first place, everyone always remarked about me and my favorite brother Otto that we were the most beautiful children. Adolescence did not alter this generally held opinion. In the second place I am not blind: we looked like German gods; we both had thick yellow hair, chiseled noses, eyes blue and commanding as planets, and almost perfectly fleshless lips. One could see plainly that our family had ties to the aristocracy. Nowadays this doesn’t count for much, especially in the less civilized world, like New Jersey. But it should matter. Because aristocracy is a chain of people passing along a sense of worth, handling it cautiously, so as not to lose any, from one generation to the next. My great-great-uncle was Joseph von Görres. I will not bother to explain who he was. In my youth, those syllables belonged to the syllabus of general education, not to mention countless streets and public squares, and anyone who knew us, knew as well that we were connected to Görres. Not a direct descendant, I admit: he married a distant aunt, who was a von Lassaulx, also a name of distinction. Generations followed, of doctors, lawyers, engineers, prelates. They weren’t all Germans—some were Dutch, others French—but they were all Catholic. Over generations, my family, the Gierlichs, took one turn after another that led it into the middle class, but we never sank below that. Of course this was thanks to the women, who made sure there was no monkey business. It is up to the women to keep up a family standard, men are not strong enough. Women must keep them in line, including lineage. I learned this from my grandmother, who instructed me that my very presence must influence, that when I enter a room the men must unconsciously move their hands to their trousers, to make sure they have not forgotten to button up; I was about seven years old. The women were groomed to choose their husbands prudently. My grandmother turned down a rich aristocrat because he was lazy. He had a castle, but not a position. Instead, she married an energetic engineer, who soon rewarded her by building the railroad from Berlin to Petersburg. Czar Alexander was so grateful that he presented my grandmother with a set of onyx and diamonds, big pieces that really qualify one to say “family jewelry.” I don’t like the first syllable of that word, but this substance is one thing that I really enjoyed in my life: I inherited and was given a lot of it, and I took excellent care of it. Many decades later, I risked my life to smuggle Czar Alexander’s generous gifts to safe shores—only to have my granddaughter auction them for a pittance at Christie’s, under circumstances so demeaning they make our flight from Germany look like a Sunday excursion to Chadwick Beach. I will return to that later. 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. In any case, her background must be recounted, to make sense of the foreground. But where was I? My appearance. In our engagement photograph I look like a martyr about to be thrown to a lion. My future husband holds me in his arms, his wild creature poking at the barriers between us: our layers of clothing, the weeks until the wedding ceremony. Soon it would be released. Carl’s eyes were even larger than mine, but black. His nose was large too, and beaked. His bones were large. His creature would not be small. I am not suggesting that Carl was ever anything but honorable. He wore his military uniform to our wedding. With his medals for heroism, and his sword at his belt, he looked like the perfect German gentleman. His moral credentials were impeccable. But of course I was doing the Wrong Thing by marrying him. I aimed the family downward. I crash-landed the family. Love makes one careless. I argued with my parents that since he converted to my faith, just the way Gustav Mahler and countless other important people had, and was twice as Good as me, since goodness came to him without effort, whereas I always had to work at it (my parents nodded vigorously in agreement), he was a perfectly respectable choice in a husband. The alternative was no husband at all. This had been my sworn objective until I met him, Dr. Carl Rother. We had met over a limb amputation, in an army field hospital. I was one of the nurses, in a sterile gown, my hair hidden under a conical surgical cap. He was even more covered up. He wore a mask. I did not see the size of this nose until later. I saw his black eyes. And his quick, graceful hands, handling the saw with such familiarity. He cut and trimmed and sewed, all at great speed. His palm was square and muscular, his fingers long and tapering to small tips with round, neat fingernails. When the stump was all cleaned up and lay on the operating table looking like a giant salami, he sighed, stood back, and gazed over at me. For a while, I would have none of him. I had already turned down all the eligible boys back in the Rhineland, where I belonged. But I allowed him to kiss me. It wasn’t so bad. He was very clean. He gave me a ring. I gave it back. He gave me another. His father owned a hardware store in a small town in Upper Silesia. The men in the family wore yarmulkes, the women wigs. I accepted the ring. I told my family. My brother Otto said nothing. I mean: nothing; he wouldn’t speak to me. My youngest brother Heinrich proclaimed himself concerned. Up till then, he was the family problem; he hadn’t even finished high school and he seemed headed for a career in manual labor. Compared with me now, though, he was a shining light. He adored my predicament, and when I went home to discuss the wedding with my parents, he pretended to try to talk me out it. I was amused when he addressed me over a hastily called dinner, and my smile triggered his usual raging, his shouts of “kleiner Idiot” sprayed into the first course, a delicious Milchkaltschale, iced soup with beaten egg white floating in icebergs on top; it was the middle of the summer. My sisters looked at me, their souls doubled over in pain: betrayal. Together, we had danced our way through bourgeois Rhineland life, attended balls, dried our first bouquets, toyed with the officers and academics and higher forms of male being that invited toying, while exchanging, again and again, our childhood oaths to keep forever our virginity and to have, therefore, interesting lives. My decision shocked my sisters into a kind of submission to me. I had my way. A week after Carl was baptized, I married him. And I moved with him to the backwater where he had grown up. I accepted his attempts at compensation—a boxer, a dachshund, and the biggest villa in town. It was larger than the Gierlich home overlooking the Rhine. It had high stucco ceilings, ornate parquet floors, an enormous kitchen, a wing for the servants, a nursery, and three bathrooms, two for the family, one for the staff. More compensation—I had a lovely sitting room, with a settee. I changed the slipcovering every season. Pastels in spring and summer, solemn browns and grays for autumn, and deep reds and greens for winter. A small table held my books, mostly biographies and travel guides, and the cookies, which changed with the seasons too. I looked forward to spring—flowery anise cookies; summer—airy waffles and Löffelbiskuits; autumn—russisches Brot; winter—Lebkuchen, Spekulatius. I could look out at the flowers or the snowdrifts in the back garden. The front yard had a high brick wall so that passersby could not stare in, but most of them were friendly, and many were related. I accepted Carl’s family and enjoyed calling them my own, even if they were socially not on our level: four good-natured sisters who did not employ servants but managed all by themselves to keep clean houses and bake various pastries; three brothers, one a barber, the other a cantor in the synagogue, and the youngest, like Heinrich Gierlich, the family problem—worse: a thief. The youngest children are usually the family problem, as Irene would turn out to be. I have asked around here why that is, and received no satisfactory answer. When I met Carl, Jacob Rother was only fifteen and so enterprising that he had already found his way into a prison. His crime was modest. He had found a broken camera in a scrap heap and polished it up. He set off into the countryside on a mission, to make portraits of the peasants and their families. They dolled up, assembled in front of the camera, and he solemnly clicked their pictures and took their coins. And that was the last they saw of him. Little Jacob came out of prison, claimed to be sorry, shocked us with his stories, and disappeared on another scam. Although he was the only other man in the family not running around in a yarmulke, Carl detested him. “I have enough brothers to go around, I don’t need you, Jacob,” he said, and forbade him to visit us. I opened the back door for Jacob when Carl was not home. I fed him a big meal, and told him enough about Jesus, a parable a visit—Jacob ate very vigorously, so I had to speak up—to justify the invitation. Even if I was sowing into thorns, I enjoyed the company of this young version of Carl—as dark and muscular and nearly as smart—and sent him away with admonitions he would never heed, my heart happy. I also liked all the countless little well-behaved nieces and nephews that lived in town. They turned the dreary provincial town into a warm lap. The biggest compensation—Carl was a big man in a little town, but he was also a fairly big man in a very big town. He ran the local town hospital as chief doctor, but he also taught at the university of Breslau. His title was not just Herr Doktor, it was Herr Professor Doktor, and I was his wife, and my name became Frau Professor Doktor, and that bit of recognition, in the large sense small, made up for a whole lot of strangeness and smallness that a worldly Rhinelander like me took upon herself moving to Upper Silesia. But apart from all that, I admired Carl more than I had ever admired anyone but my big brother Otto. My husband was just as intelligent, as morally upright. He had grown up praying to a different God, but he believed in Jesus all the more passionately, and securely, for having spent so many years without Him. Our child made him miserable, because it soon became obvious that it had grave flaws. Flaw number one: it did not resemble me in the way that mattered. It had Carl’s enormous dark eyes, his nose, and all on its own, I don’t know where they came from, red, flashy lips. Also unlike us, our child had a noticeably weak chin, and that, said Carl, represented weakness of character. All this was not obvious when the baby was born, for nothing is, they all look alike, I find them somewhat disgusting. But I knew that, and I can’t say it disappointed me. Something else. Flaw number two. A shock. I was unprepared: a girl. It was bad enough being a girl myself, not being able to become an army officer, a hero of battles. Otto bathed naked but I had to take baths with my underpants on, so as not to see. I took my underpants off anyway, and my nanny smacked me. Father, I was impure. Constantly. All around me were shining examples. My sisters were in and out of the confessional in five minutes. Not me. Father, I was angry, envious, greedy. It did not go unnoticed. I dunked the braids of the girl at the desk in front of me into my inkwell because her braids were thicker than mine. I had to leave the convent school. A girl spoke loudly in the confessional and I listened in and giggled; I had to leave the school. When our teacher fell from her chair, I claimed that we children had seen her underpants and she was therefore unfit to teach us. I had to leave the school. In the end, I had private tutors. A visitor gave each child in the family a heavy glass egg, with a figurine from the New Testament inside. But mine had a little chicken. A chicken! I hurled it out the window. My guardian angel nudged it off trajectory by one centimeter, so that it merely grazed the rim of a gentleman’s felt hat rather than killing him. Sin of nearly taking someone’s life. In living room and nursery and dinner-table confrontations they scolded that I was intransigent, my morals beyond repair because I was immune to scolding. I am afraid that I passed on my character to my granddaughter Irene. The difference between us is that all my life, I pitted my will to be good against my natural inclinations, while she saw no point in that. More about this later. I must explain about Otto. My brother Otto was pious, God-fearing, and quiet. We were often mistaken for each other. Otto was ten months older than I was, and exactly my height until he reached his teens. Then suddenly he grew much taller, he had a growling voice, while I kept the thin, piping one. He started treating me with disdain. He didn’t like girls any more than I did, even as an adult. I happen to know that he preferred boys. Another tragedy for me: I was not a boy he could love and confide in. Excerpted from The Empress of Weehawken by Irene Dische. Copyright © 2007 by Irene Dische. Published in August 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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Reading Group Guide

About This Guide

The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of Irene Dische’s novel The Empress of Weehawken, an international bestseller. We hope they will enrich your experience of this funny, moving family saga.

Introduction

Recalling three quirky, resilient, and endlessly adventurous generations of her family, Elisabeth Rother is a narrator you’ll not soon forget. In candid scenes, never scrimping on juicy details and Old World advice, she takes us from her aristocratic days of prosperity, before she and her husband fled Nazi Germany, to her transformation into a fervently patriotic American, and the decades of wavering fortunes, exasperating motherhood, and staunch marriage that defined the rest of her life.

A devout Catholic whose husband, Carl, converted from Judaism, Elisabeth is deeply vexed by the questionable choices of those around her: her daughter, Renate, sleeps on sheets that haven’t been ironed, performs autopsies for a living, and marries a health nut; her defiant granddaughter, Irene, drops out of school only to run away on a series of international hijinks, and she doesn’t understand that family jewelry is to be sold in times of starvation. Not even Carl is beyond reproach, developing an unhealthy attachment to the widow next door in a futile attempt to help her get over a drinking problem.

Through it all, Elisabeth never fails to find evidence of redemption—and copious self-improvement lessons for those she loves the most. Leading your reading group on a rollicking tour of a life lived with verve, The Empress of Weehawken is a masterpiece of storytelling.

Questions for Discussion

1. How were you affected by the fact that the author and Elisabeth’s granddaughter have the same name? How is the experience of reading a novel different from reading a memoir?

2. What are the merits of Elisabeth’s criteria for choosing a spouse? What was the key to her enduring marriage to Carl?

3. Did Carl’s family have anything other than nationality in common with Elisabeth’s? Why was Carl unenthusiastic about his relatives and their Jewish cultural identity?

4. What ultimately led to the Rothers’ survival under Hitler? How did their situation differ from those in other Holocaust narratives you have read? How would you have resolved Elisabeth and Carl’s dilemma over whether to flee?

5. How would you describe Elisabeth’s unique storytelling voice? How does she manage to be both irresistible and outrageous? Who is the “keeper of the saga” in your family?

6. What are the traits of Elisabeth’s version of Catholicism? How does the hierarchy of sins help her negotiate life? What does she fear? How does she determine whether others are worthy?

7. Discuss the parenting styles described in The Empress of Weehawken. How did Liesel and her niece exert control over the children in their care (and over the parents)? How does Elisabeth’s mothering compare to Renate’s? Was it nature or nurture that caused Irene and Little Carl to make unconventional, sometimes self-defeating, choices?

8. Has the idea of an American identity changed very much since the time Elisabeth and Renate finally reunited with Carl? What aspects of American life characterized the mid-twentieth century but have now vanished? What did the Rothers love and dislike about their American and German homelands?

9. Discuss the various husbands described in The Empress of Weehawken. Who did you see as the ideal men? What did Renate seem to need in a man? How did her husbands compare to her father?

10. The novel opens with Carl’s determination to have a son and closes with the line “nothing beats a daughter.” How do the novel’s female characters learn how to define themselves as women? What were the expectations for each generation in areas such as sex, marriage, careers, grooming, and housekeeping? How do their attitudes compare to the ones in your family history?

11. How do Elisabeth and Renate approach the cycles of life? Was Elisabeth ever rebellious in her youth? How do their attitudes change when they become widows?

12. Elisabeth often tells of moments when “the bill came,” and God delivered retribution. How does this point of view shape her decisions? Does Irene prove or disprove Elisabeth’s ideas about the rewards systems lurking in our destinies?

13. How do the novel’s characters feel about money? What does stinginess or extravagance indicate about their personalities? Who are the novel’s most prosperous characters, in literal or symbolic ways?

14. To what do you attribute Elisabeth’s longevity? What legacy has she left when she narrates her final, joyful scene?

About the Author

Irene Dische’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, and her books, published in twenty-two countries, have included international bestsellers. She divides her time between Berlin and Rhinebeck, New York.

Advance Praise

“Frau Professor Doktor Rother is stubborn, hypochondriacal, selfish, devoid of the slightest sentimentality, judgmental, a creature of infinite blame and contempt. She is also, by the way, frighteningly funny. Two parts honesty, one part arsenic. I couldn’t get enough of her life story—Irene Dische made me laugh at the shock of it all.”—Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil

“Irene Dische is one of my favorite graphic novelists, though as far as I know she can't even draw a have-a-nice-day face. She uses language to sketch her characters and scenes with a cartoonist’s wit and efficiency so they come to life memorably right behind your eyeballs, etched with a caustic and dark hilarity that belies the seriousness of her subject matter—in this case including Hitler's Germany, the American Dream, life, death, and sex. The X chromosomes always win in this multigenerational history of eccentric women, a tale that lies in the forbidden zone between novel and memoir … and the style it’s all drawn in is uniquely her own.”—Art Spiegelman, author of Maus

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