The Empress of Weehawken is a faux memoir from the point-of-view of Elisabeth Rother, leading us through her amazing life and the lives of her daughter, Renate, and her granddaughter, Irene. Yes, Irene, as in Irene Dische, the author. But as Elisabeth would say, more on that later. At first glance, Elisabeth is an unrepentant snob, an anti-Semite who marries a Jew, a borderline abusive mother, and if I had put aside the book after fifty or so pages, I would have come away disliking Elisabeth despite her amusing turns of phrase. Dische has absolutely nailed Elisabeth's incisive, witty, condescending, observant voice, and though Elisabeth says she is anti-Semitic and disdainful of the lower classes, Dische allows her actions to tell a more nuanced story. By the end of the story, I adored Elisabeth, and though I'm not a big crier while reading, I wept at the end.
The story begins with Elisabeth telling of her difficulties conceiving with her husband Carl, and Elisabeth's disappointment that the eventual child (Renate) is a girl. It is the 1930s in Germany and Carl is a Jew, regardless his conversion to Elisabeth's Catholicism before their wedding. As life becomes more and more restrictive, Elisabeth bullies the Catholic church into helping relocate him to America. She sends Renate to a convent school as a "good Catholic girl." Elisabeth's strength of spirit becomes very clear as she protects her family, and even attempts to help Carl's family using her family connections (her brother Otto is in the SS). Though Elisabeth is the one with the "good breeding" and noble family, it is Carl who is most scathing in his judgments about Jews, and Carl who enforces class delineations (though Elisabeth pays lip service to the idea of keeping the servant class in their place, her relationship with Liesel belies that position). In Part II, Elisabeth and Renate join Carl in America, where they have nowhere to stay, as Carl's unbelievable behavior has put him on the outs with the Catholic church. Elisabeth takes the reins of the family and steers them toward assimilation and even prosperity. After the war, she deals with the bitter correspondence from family, friends, and even unknown Germans, who congratulate her on getting out of Germany and ask for handouts. Her response is inspiring. Dische weaves the lives of Renate and Irene through Elisabeth's narrative, and Elisabeth often invokes a subject, promising to return to it later. Elisabeth is very, very funny on a variety of subjects. On old age: "After forty, if you wake up without feeling any pain, then you're probably dead." On Heinz kosher baked beans: "They came in glass jars, and the inside of the cap, if you put your nose right up to it, smelled like pork. It was some kind of trick. I believe this was used by the Jewish manufacturer to attract his own pork-starved people, and that trick is as much proof as one needs about the ingenuity of the race."
Irene Dische has placed this disclaimer before Chapter One: "Certain events and characters in this novel were inspired by real people and events. But the actual events, characters, and dialogue depicted are all fictional." If anything, the knowledge of the author's own connection to the story, was a minor drawback to me. On occasion, I was pulled out of the story wondering if the events were actually true (not just true to the story); the incidences of child abuse (did the maid/nanny actually lock the real Irene in a closet for punishment, leaving the house when the screaming got on her nerves? and, oh, the pants-wetting thing!) and Irene's wild adventures abroad (did some intervention actually abort the near-rape experiences of Irene, or is she rewriting her history our of wishful thinking? or did those scenes never happen at all?) I know that "real life" is very popular right now. Memoirs pop up right and left, and don't get me started on reality television. And if Irene hadn't been a character in her own book, I would have had no issues at all with the "inspired by real people and events"--in fact, I would have thought it an ingenious idea to write a biography of one's grandmother from the grandmother's point of view. Wondering about the truth of Irene's story was only a minor nuisance, but it did, at times, distract me from the story. Nevertheless, this is an engaging, moving story about an extraordinary woman, and I certainly recommend it.