The Puttermesser Papers is divided into five parts, which are further subdivided into several short chapters that trace the life history, including the life after death, of the novel’s feminist, Jewish, intellectual lawyer-heroine, Ruth Puttermesser. An amalgam of comedy and social satire, the book also includes supernatural fantasy derived from Jewish folklore, literary parody that inverts the conventions of historical sagas of great men who run for high public office, and a serious psychobiography of three famous nineteenth century figures. As a result, The Puttermesser Papers divides its energies among various genres of literature and social critique ambitiously and sometimes, to the reader, perplexingly.
The first part, “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife,” presents a brilliant but frustrated thirty-four-year-old lawyer who has quit a prominent Wall Street law firm, where both her gender and her ethnicity were barriers to advancement, to work for the Department of Receipts and Disbursements in New York. While working for the city, she also visits her Uncle Zindel for Hebrew lessons in which the reader learns that the name Puttermesser means “butterknife.” In this scene, Cynthia Ozick refuses to allow the reader to take her character seriously when the narrative voice erupts with “Stop. Stop, stop! Puttermesser’s biographer, stop! Disengage, please. Though it is true that biographies are invented, not recorded, here you invent too much. A symbol is allowed, but not a whole scene: do not accommodate too obsequiously to Puttermesser’s romance.” Telling readers that Puttermesser is not “an artifact” but “an essence,” Ozick ends the...
(The entire section is 701 words.)