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At the end of a long and—according to her—extraordinary life, Elisabeth Rother has decided to write her memoirs. Dwelling lovingly on her narrow escape from the Nazis with her Jewish husband and their perilous voyage to the New World of Weehawken, New Jersey. The subject that really consumes her—because what is a memoir if not a chance to even old scores?—is the waywardness of her impossible daughter, Renate, and granddaughter, Irene.
Renate persists in falling in love with geniuses who have bad table manners. She snubs a suitable career as a concert pianist to become New York's medical examiner, performing autopsies on the bodies of politicians whom death has harvested in the nighttime arms of their mistresses. Worse, she sleeps on unironed sheets. Irene brings pickled babies to school for show-and-tell, drops out (or is kicked out) in order to roam the world, refuses to address the problem of her nose with plastic surgery, and shows signs of enjoying sex. What is to be done with such women?
Written in the voice of the author's very real grandmother, this novel, is, in the end, a surprising love letter to the complicated but sustaining bond between mothers and daughters. The Empress of Weehawken is a masterpiece of comedy with an unexpected lilt of redemption at its close.
"Self-centered, insufferable narrators are hardly strangers to contemporary fiction, but it helps if they're as funny as they are grandiloquent . . . The voice of the reprobate-empress here is pitch-perfect . . . Dische has captured this fictionalized grandmother . . . with pepper and grace."—Gail Caldwell, The Boston Globe
"A vivid, rollicking tour . . . The real grandeur of The Empress of Weehawken . . . lies in the narrator's voice. Pure as a bell, always unerringly true to character, Frau Rother is drawn as accurately as the slice of a surgeon's scalpel. And that's what the author is doing here, performing autopsies on the characters of her family."—Los Angeles Times
"Superb . . . Razor-sharp, desert-dry and luxuriantly ironic . . . The story covers three generations, yet no individual is given short shrift, and even minor players are multidimensional. Frau Rother herself is an absolute triumph . . . While completely satisfying, the last page feels turned too soon. That bittersweet sense of having enjoyed the ride but being sad that it’s over is as much as any reader can ask for."—The San Diego Union-Tribune
"Brilliant . . . discomfitingly funny . . . [Dische's] narrator is as winning and willful as any reader could wish for . . . [A] marvelous exploration of honor and identity, greed, sacrifice and just deserts . . . Just as Dische's staccato rhythms and deadpan sentences stretch into lyricism, so too what seems stark, even cynical, moves into an entirely unsentimental, deeply satisfying (and sometimes scary) love."—Newsday
"Dense, dark family history loosely based on the author's own becomes relatable and funny through the no-nonsense narration of Elisabeth Rother, an upstanding Catholic German who marries a Jewish doctor before WWII."—Entertainment Weekly
"Incredibly witty, beautifully written . . . The Empress of Weehawken is a potent stew of class, sex and religion, as well as cultural and generational clashes, and Dische crafts a glorious misanthrope in her fictionalized version of her grandmother."—The Star-Ledger
"A vivid, rollicking tour . . . The real grandeur of The Empress of Weehawken . . . lies in the narrator's voice. Pure as a bell, always unerringly true to character, Frau Rother is drawn as accurately as the slice of a surgeon’s scalpel. And that's what the author is doing here, performing autopsies on the characters of her family."—Los Angeles Times
"Superb . . . Razor-sharp, desert-dry and luxuriantly ironic . . . The story covers three generations, yet no individual is given short shrift, and even minor players are multidimensional."—The San Diego Union-Tribune
"Dense, dark family history loosely based on the author's own becomes relatable and funny through the no-nonsense narration of Elisabeth Rother, an upstanding Catholic German who marries a Jewish doctor before WWII."—Jennifer Armstrong, Entertainment Weekly
"Frau Professor Doktor Rother is stubborn, mean-spirited, hypochondriacal, devoid of the slightest sentimentality, a creature of infinite blame and contempt. She is also, by the way, frighteningly funny. Two parts honesty, one part arsenic. I couldn't get enough of her life story—she made me laugh at the shock of it all."—Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats the Devil
"The Empress never stops talking, even after she’s dead, and the wonderful part is that you’re glad. She's funny, wise, and unpredictable. Her story spans three generations and two continents, and every page is a delight."—Jane Juska, author of A Round-Heeled Woman
"Dische manages to blend the comic and the poignant in a style that captivates and delights . . . Highly recommended. —Library Journal (starred review)
"Frau Professor Doktor Rother, the narrator of this brutally funny debut, is self-centered, cynical, sarcastic, fiercely proud of her Aryan heritage and incorrigibly anti-Semitic. As a German army nurse in WWI, Elizabeth Gierlich meets wealthy Jewish surgeon Carl Rother and marries him once he converts to Catholicism. They have a 'racially impure' daughter, Renate, whom Elizabeth mocks and chastises relentlessly, even as she dotes on her. After the Nazis rise to power in Germany, life for Elizabeth's in-laws becomes precarious ('forced labor was not a high-earning profession'), and Carl's 'honorary Aryan' status can't protect him from the SS once he irks them by protesting the forced sterilization of Jews. The Rothers flee to the 'less-civilized world' of Weehawken, N.J., where Renate grows up, marries Jewish professor Dische, becomes a successful pathologist and has two children, a boy too intelligent for his own good and a rebellious daughter, Irene, whose adventures, tracked via letters and collect calls home, take her across the Middle East and Africa. Elizabeth dies in 1989, still outspoken and bigoted, and continues to meddle in her beloved daughter's life from Heaven. Dische evokes human failings so skillfully that readers will catch themselves laughing at mankind at its cruelest and darkest."—Publishers Weekly
Irene Dische is a novelist and journalist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker. Her books, published in twenty-two countries, have included international bestsellers. She divides her time between Berlin and Rhinebeck, NY.