In this magical realist novel set in 1920s Germany, a young Jewish woman inexplicably bonds with the Hindu god Ganesha.
Esther Grünspan is 17 when she first moves to Köln, Germany, from her hometown in Poland, where her fiance recently failed to show up to their wedding. She starts a new life in her new city as a talented seamstress. However, this life is withdrawn and lonely, as she barely interacts with anyone, although she’s avidly trying to learn how to speak German to achieve “business success.” Even with her own family members, who visit and send letters, Esther is cold and difficult to connect with. One day, while walking through the Rheinpark, she spots a wooden stand decorated with “vibrant, garish colors” and images unfamiliar to her. She becomes fixated with one image in particular—an “elephant-headed man.” The memory of this figure sticks with Esther, who begins to doubt if it was even real. She’s actually fixated on the Hindu god Ganesha, who has similarly bonded with Esther, as revealed through his own italicized narration, interspersed throughout the novel. Later, she navigates marriage and motherhood, but she never forgets her Rheinpark memory, and Ganesha watches out for her with wisdom and love. As years pass, anti-Semitism in the city becomes more rampant, and Esther begins to obsess over India. Her decision to travel to Ganesha’s home ultimately results in an emotional, enlightening revelation. Over the course of this debut novel, Teitelman paints an intensely beautiful world in which different cultures merge in surprising ways. Although it centers on what may seem like an odd pairing—a Jewish mortal and a Hindu god—the novel weaves the two characters together in a very natural way, as Esther, withdrawn from those around her, is shown to need Ganesha as a protective, loving companion. Teitelman’s deft execution as she explores this relationship is a major factor in why this unusual novel works so well. Throughout, her writing shows a finesse that’s as compelling as the story it presents, employing a lyrical prose style when focusing on Ganesha and a more decadent tone during Esther’s parts.
A rich and moving story about an unlikely pair.
“A parable, a prayer, a piece of magic realism, Judith Teitelman’s GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA begins with the (improbable; wondrous) visit of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant deity, to strife-torn 1920s Köln, setting us off on a journey of love, grief, understanding. A feat of (and feast for) the imagination, the novel unfolds in ways at once heartfelt, surprising, inevitable. You will not be sorry you accepted this invitation to voyage.”
—Howard A. Rodman, Past President, Writers Guild of America West; Screenwriter, Savage Grace, Joe Gould’s Secret; Novelist, Destiny Express; Professor, University of Southern California
“In GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA, Esther Grünspan embarks on a journey, leaving her native Poland to arrive in Germany in 1923. She does not know that her journey has only begun, a journey of the heart and the spirit, a journey not only across distances but across time. So too, the reader embarks on the journey through this vast and lyrical debut novel that will expand our view of the world, our consciousness and our compassion.”
—Terry Wolverton, author of Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman’s Building
“The story grabs me, Esther’s journey is compelling and beautifully told. I love that something feels withheld from her story, I’m drawn into her character, fascinated that she is ’emotionally hardening’ before my eyes. Yet there are these beautiful moments of her softening, succumbing, listening. I like the historical milieu, this eerie calm before the maelstrom of war, where an outsider can catalyze such irrational (and violent) race hatred. These pages are beautiful…it feels like Judith has breathed them into being.”
—Louise Steinman, author of The Crooked Mirror: A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation
“Judith Teitelman’s remarkable imagination produces the thrilling illusion of several layers of different lives. The way she honors her main character’s indifference to human contact and emotion and then poetically leads her to a redemption is an act of cosmic chutzpah.”
—Sasha Anawalt, author, educator, and director of arts journalism master’s programs at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
“Lyrical and moving, GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA weaves a story of daring and courage in a world rent mad by war and destruction.”
—Gary Phillips, editor of The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir
“GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA by Judith Teitelman spins a mythic tale with a heart so big it takes two continents and four countries to hold the story of Esther Grünspan, a seamstress whose needlework is as pierced and perfect as the needles in her heart. Teitelman weaves a tale of a seventeen-year-old girl jilted at the wedding chuppah with such extraordinary tenderness and grace. The reader cannot help but rejoice in Esther’s beautiful, broken spirit and in the way Ganesha wraps her up in his caring love, gradually melting the ice that is her armor and awakening her spirit to live again decades later. Teitelman is a masterful storyteller who knows and loves her characters deeply, and Esther’s courageous rebirth captures a kind of universal longing in all of us to heal our broken hearts.”
—Kerry Madden-Lunsford, author, Director of Creative Writing at University of Alabama, Birmingham
“Have you ever read a book that begins with the great Indian elephant god, Ganesha, dancing through the night with a spunky young German woman? Judith Teitelman’s GUESTHOUSE FOR GANESHA is a truly original novel. I was immediately hooked by that image with its blend of magic realism and a down-to-earth heroine who must grapple with abandonment and her own capacity for fortitude, all under the compassionate gaze of Ganesha, observing and guiding her with his ‘surveillance of souls.’ Teitelman yokes holocausts—both historical and personal—to compassion and possibility, giving us the timeless writerly gift of immersing this reader—and I’m sure many others—in a journey of renewal both archetypal and unprecedented.”
—Janet Sternburg, author of The Writer on Her Work, Phantom Limb, White Matter; photographer of the monograph, “Overspilling World”
“This young woman’s journey through love, betrayal, dislocation, adaptation, terror and spiritual discovery is unlike anything I have read before. It is both heart-felt and unexpected.”
—Bill Stern, author, curator, Executive Director Museum of California Design