cover image The Vision of Emma Blau

The Vision of Emma Blau

Ursula Hegi. Simon & Schuster, $25 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-684-82997-5

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.)