cover image The Puttermesser Papers

The Puttermesser Papers

Cynthia Ozick. Alfred A. Knopf, $23 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45476-2

In the world of Ozick's novels, nothing happens by chance. Ruth Puttermesser, 34 when this book begins, is aptly named, for puttermesser means butterknife, a word that indicates the contradictory sides of her nature. Puttermesser is a lawyer by training, yet ethical to her bones; an idealist and visionary, yet a cynic and pragmatist. She is a lover of classic literature and civility who can dismiss a stupid comment with the best New York sass; a rationalist seduced by her own imagination; a woman too wise to be surprised by the dark corners of human nature, who is nonetheless betrayed time and again by her own desires. In a droll, effortlessly erudite fable that mixes brilliant fantasy and the gritty details of urban life, Ozick follows her protagonist through decades of aspiration, achievement, failure, hope, death--and its aftermath. The story encompasses the themes of power and the lack therof, the high aspirations of art versus the realities of existence, the vanquishing of ethics by the persistent presence of greed and selfishness, the condition of Paradise, the essential puzzle of existence--all the while conveying mordant observations about contemporary culture. Unjustly fired from her civil service job, Puttermesser constructs a golem who helps her become mayor of New York on a reform ticket; falls from grace into limbo; is duped in love by a superb copyist who plays on Puttermesser's love of George Sand; is duped again by family loyalty when she attempts to help a Russian emigree; and endures the final irony at the point of a knife blade. Playfully employing the nuances of language to amuse, instruct and astonish the reader, Ozick has created a witty, intelligent and intensely imagined narrative that will stand among her best work. (June)