Ursula Hegi's The Vision of Emma Blau
is an epic story of German immigrants attempting to assimilate while still preserving traces of home in their language and rituals. In 1894 Stefan Blau leaves Europe for America; he is only 13 years old, but he feels the need for another country so strongly that it wakes him up at night. After narrowly escaping a restaurant fire in New York City, he finds himself in New Hampshire. With money he has saved from waiter jobs and poker winnings, he buys a small hotel, which over time he transforms into a six-story, elaborate apartment house. The Wasserburg
(water fortress) is a palace towering over a half-empty lake town, standing out in the landscape the same way Stefan's accent stands out in conversation--exotic, awkward, a hybrid of German and American dreams.
Hegi's writing is lively and graceful, moving across time, space, and generations without faltering or bogging down. While her scope is vast, her great gift is for particulars: Stefan's third wife, Helene, who has a deep-seated aggression in her soul that her mother attributed to her being a "biter" as a child; his daughter, Greta, who lags in school but notices things no one else does--"the reflection of the half moon that swayed on the water like a slab of frost," or the music of her flute--"long notes that sounded like the calls of large birds flying through the night." These moments of poetry open up The Vision of Emma Blau, halting its swirling world with their loveliness.
Hegi is best known for her 1994 novel, Stones from the River, which Oprah chose for her book group, catapulting this somewhat obscure writer onto the bestseller lists. But Hegi was around for a long time before Oprah shined the light on her. She is a born storyteller, a witness to the immigrant experience who is reimagining America's past from the perspective of those who desired that country as a promised land, but who even after 100 years could never quite sleep the sleep of its native sons. --Emily White
From Publishers Weekly
Much as she did in Stones from the River, Hegi creates a social world in microcosm, and, following her characters for almost a century, fashions a saga of hidden loves and destructive obsessions. The fictional German town of Burgdorf, the setting of Stones and Floating in my Mother's Palm, also figures in this novel, the story of a German-American family and their fellow residents in an opulent apartment house set, inappropriately,in a rural community on the shores of New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee. In 1905, Stefan Blau, recently emigrated from Burgdorf, has a vision of a girl dancing in a courtyard (foreshadowing identifies her as his eventual granddaughter, Emma) and resolves to give substance to his dream in a building that he will call the Wasserburg. Stefan's passion for the Wasserburg is also a curse, manifested when both his first wife and his second die in childbirth. Determined not to risk another child, he returns to Burgdorf and marries Helene Montag (sister of Leo, the dwarf Trudi's father in Stones). Helene tricks him and has a child of her own--and survives--but the sibling rivalry among Stefan's offspring, combined with the personality defects they acquire when he reserves all his love for the Wasserburg, will threaten to destroy the family. Hegi uses the story of the Blaus and their tenants and neighbors to examine the social pressures on German-Americans during two world wars, and to contrast the differences in cultural attitudes and behavioral standards. She tends to animate characters in terms of psychological eccentricities (one of Stefan's sons eats compulsively to make up for paternal cruelty; his sister can foresee the future and heal by touching; and the eponymous Emma has the same obsession with the Wasserburg that prevents Stefan from nurturing his family). The eventual deterioration of the Wasserburg symbolizes the family's decay, but the much-signaled curse on the house is finally broken. Hegi's gift for depicting family dynamics and sexual relationships, including the concealed sorrows and tensions that motivate behavior, anchors the narrative, but it is her larger perspective of a family's cultural roots that grants her novel distinction. Agent, Gail Hochman. 6-city author tour. (Feb.)
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