Joseph Brill, a middle-aged bachelor, is the Principal of a school somewhere in the provincial US. He is very proud of his school, because he was the one to be chosen from the start to be a Principal, he prepared the Dual Curriculum (revolutionary, or so he hopes), and he is fighting with the parents for his vision of the school. He is so engrossed in his dreams that he has even an image of a perfect student in his head.
Brill, born in a Jewish family in Paris, studied astronomy in France before World War II, and survived the Holocaust mainly in hiding - first in a convent, where the nuns put him in a cellar full of books (where he discovered a patron for his school, Edmond Fleg, and reinforced his philosophical inclinations), and then in a peasant's barn. His parents and most of his siblings (except for his three much older sisters) were killed, and he finally emigrated to the United States. His childhood, youth and the years in hiding are shown as a series of images, which shaped his personality and are a tool to explain to the reader why he is who he is.
When Brill gets a new first-grader, Beulah Lilt, a daughter of a scholar Hester Lilt (a very strong, self-confident and educated woman, a great female character), he gets extremely excited at the prospect of having finally a genius in his school. Fascinated by the mother, he tries to understand her, engaging in discussions and verbal duels, convinced, that she is the only person on his real level, while otherwise (he is afraid) he is surrounded by mediocrity. Unfortunately, Beulah is not a student, which would be noticed by any of the teachers for her brightness - they rather remark on her inattentiveness, her daydreaming and lack of eagerness.Read more ›
This novel of Ozick's deals with the constant struggle of achieving perfection. The main character, Joseph, is a Jewish-Frenchman living in the middle of America. He had faced many hardships during the first decades of his life. When he finally is able to overcome them and enjoy the blessings of his emancipation, he cannot let go of his own sense of failure. The relationships he has in the latter part of his life are not fufilling because he focuses on the lack in these people, not thier ability. Joseph fails to value people as individuals. As a result, he is destined to be ordinary and unhappy instead of trying to be extraordinary. At the end of the novel he is given a chance to change his outlook on life. This novel was an easy read and full of beautiful, descriptive imagery.
. . . Yes, the novel is well written, and Ms. Ozick certainly has a highly developed vocabulary... or at least she has access to a good thesaurus. . . . The main point of the book is that while some of us dream, strive and struggle for intellectual greatness, we usually wind up being just a bunch of ordinary folks. How silly, how depressing! What unrealistic, high falootin' ideas of greatness this woman has! She illustrates her idea of ordinariness by telling us that unless we're great we're doomed to be mere "plumbers". Don't plumbers think? She never passes up a chance to heft her great intellectual superiority complex on the lower forms of life that she and, apparantly, her characters are destined to rub elbows with. I found Ozick's tone infuriatingly patronizing and false. What all the hubbub about her is all about, I'll never understand.