This book's a carrier.
No, not the Typhoid Mary kind, but the kind you carry around with you from place to place, the kitchen to the bedroom, the car to the dentist's office, just in case you might have an empty minute somewhere to check out the next event in the lives of the complex and troubled Blau clan.
Thirteen-year-old Stefan Blau triggers the multigenerational saga in 1894 when he runs away from Burgdorf, Germany, and emigrates to the United States, eventually settling in Winnepesaukee, New Hampshire. From a rented rowboat, he sees on shore the image of the Wasserburg, a magnificent apartment house he will build, six stories of pillars, marble fireplaces, beveled mirrors, and wrought-iron sconces. Dancing around the fountains and courtyards, a small girl whirls in his vision. Later he will recognize her as his own granddaughter, sharing his passion for this water fortress which, for better or worse, will dominate the lives of the next century of Blaus.
Ursula Hegi, author of six other books, and herself an immigrant from Germany at age 18, has covered this territory before, most notably in Stones from the River, a contender for the PEN/Faulkner Award and an Oprah book club selection. Picking up characters from the fringes of that novel, she follows them through four generations of relationships with each other and the beautiful, sometimes obsessive, building.
Hegi writes with a German accent. Her work is strong and teleological, driving to an end that is telegraphed from the beginning ( many years later when Robert would . . . ). Because so much ground must be covered, her characters here are sometimes seen from a distance, their actions and thoughts described more than lived on the page. For all that, The Vision of Emma Blau grabs that soap-opera hook in every reader's brain and hangs on for dear life, serving up a prime collection of mildly and majorly dysfunctional souls.
Metaphorically, it has always been the sin of the fathers that is visited upon the children. Hegi takes the idea into another dimension. In this book, it's the dream of the father that is visited upon the children. Maude McDaniel reviews for the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and other newspapers.