An apartment house in New England is the dream of German immigrant Stefan Blau, who lands in America in the 1890s. The building is central to the story of several generations of the Blau family, beginning with Stefan's three children from three different wives. The people in each generation are vivid individuals with secrets, passions, and ambitions that drive this family saga through 100 years. Hegi reads her novel in a narrow range of tones; her voice has a whispery quality that does not do justice to the high emotion and animation of the characters. Unfortunately, her eccentric pronunciation gives the serious, passionate story a comic aspect that makes the family seem mildly dysfunctional rather than tragic. As well, the abridgment diminishes the epic proportion and causes great chunks of time to be omitted, disrupting the flow of the story and confusing the listener. Still, the characters and settings are interesting and well developed, and the depiction of German Americans' humiliation during the World Wars is compelling. Libraries may want to wait for the unabridged production with a professional narrator, or read the book, which was highly recommended.--Barbara Valle, El Paso P.L., TX Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
The Vision of Emma Blau
Given the fact that women buy the majority of novels published in this country -- and given the number of so-called "women's novels" out there -- there are surprisingly few writers who consistently manage to produce family sagas that are both compulsively readable and literary enough to be intellectually satisfying but not so high-blown as to feel like homework. Anita Shreve succeeds intermittently. So does Diane Johnson. But it is Ursula Hegi who consistently scores near the top of the crowd- and intellect-pleasing short list.
The Vision of Emma Blau is a wonderful, satisfying novel about three generations of a 20th-century German immigrant family. Fans of the Oprah-fied Stones from the River will recognize Hegi's voice (and some of her characters); newcomers to the Hegi oeuvre will feel at home with them immediately. An old-fashioned tale of family, sacrifice, and love, Hegi's latest begins with the story of Stefan Blau, a small-town German boy who emigrates to New Hampshire at the beginning of the 20th century. Possessed of a vision of how life should be, Blau marries an American banker's daughter and buys an apartment building he turns, via copious amounts of sweat and tears, into the finest such establishment tiny Lake Winnipesaukee has ever seen: Blau's apartments have chandeliers, indoor plumbing, and all manner of modern conveniences. Although in some ways the Blau family will always remain outsiders, Stefan Blau soon becomes a pillar of this New Hampshire society.
But Stefan is not nearly so lucky in love, burying two wives and one baby within a decade. Now a widower with a son and a daughter, he imports a third wife, Helene, from the old country and fathers another son, Robert. And now the rich story begins: Helene, though a good mother to Stefan's children, can't help but favor her own blood, and so subtle conflicts begin to mar the lives of the latter-generation Blaus. There are property disputes among Stefan's children after his death (can you say Bleak House?) and myriad complications in their relationships. Soon we're following Robert, a character so layered with guilt and obligation that he smothers himself in food, work, and music, leaving his wife, Yvonne, and children -- the Emma of the title and her brother, Caleb -- to sort out the mysteries and secrets living in the house that Blau built.
That's a plot summary, but no such recounting of the facts can do justice to the intricate tapestry that Hegi weaves in this long but never slow novel. There are myriad subplots, some involving characters (e.g., the dwarf) who appeared in the beloved Stones, and even the most minor characters are beautifully, completely drawn. Miss Garland, an old woman who is one of the first tenants in Blau's building, lives a life parallel to the Blaus and seems to symbolize the passage of time and culture; the Jewish couple the Blaus manage to befriend even as their countrymen try to exterminate that race are particularly heartbreaking. The beauty of Hegi's work is in these and other details: the rendering of the young Stefan's dreams of glory, the flashbacks to pre-World War I Europe, the evocation of the rise and fall of an ambitious family that almost melts into the American pot. Hegi writes in a straightforward style tinged with lyricism and even a touch of magical realism. The scenes of Stefan and Helene in the old country evoke both the beauty and the superstitions of that time and place, and the tenderness with which Hegi draws the developing relationship between them reads like something out of the 19th century: knowing, yet generous about the emotional ambivalences that characterized even this prepsychotherapy age. And although it's impossible to write about German Americans in the 20th century without touching on the world events of the time, Hegi never beats us over the head with her understanding of the shame these emigrants must have felt as news of Hitler's atrocities permeated the American consciousness. We've read so much about the German-Jewish experience, but Hegi is one of the few who can make us feel for those who were German by birth but American by choice. For all their wealth and success, Hegi subtly makes clear, to be German American was to remain forever other in both cultures.
Some readers may be initially surprised by the book's title, if they take it to mean that this is the vision belonging to Emma Blau. It's not that so much as it is the young Stefan's vision of the young girl who is not born until soon before he dies; from his earliest days, he had a hope and fantasy of the future -- and a premonition of the child who would further his promise and his dreams. For her part, Hegi has carried out her own promise -- the one that began with Floating in My Mother's Palm: She has produced yet another piece of wise, intelligent fiction about people who are both imprisoned by their own past and hopeful about their futures.
Sara Nelson, formerly executive editor of The Book Report and book columnist for Glamour, is now managing online editor of Oxygen Media. She also contributes to Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and Salon.
Robert Clark The Washington Post Book World Always vividly imagined and deeply felt...Hegi reminds readers that history inhabits and, yes, haunts us, and must be somehow rendered its due.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Engrossing...a risky story of love and history and an invigorating, memorable story about the power of desire.
Anne Stephenson The Arizona Republic Hegi's characterization is superb, part of a story that is as well constructed as the Wasserburg itself.
Linton Weeks The Washington Post Book World Rife with life and death and magic realism in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez.