The Oriental Wifeby Evelyn Toynton
The Oriental Wife is the story of two assimilated Jewish children from Nuremberg who flee Hitler’s Germany and struggle to put down roots elsewhere. When they meet up again in New York, they fall in love both with each other and with America, believing they have found a permanent refuge. But just when it looks as though nothing can ever touch them again, their lives are shattered by a freakish accident and a betrayal that will reverberate into the life of their American daughter. In its portrait of the immigrant experience, and of the tragic gulf between generations, The Oriental Wife illuminates the collision of American ideals of freedom and happiness with certain sterner old world virtues.
“In this tender and moving work, two immigrants manage to escape Hitler’s Germany to start a new life in America—but then their luck runs out.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Toynton’s character development is solid, and her prose is masterful. The Oriental Wife is a deeply moving exploration of the eternal themes of love, loss and regret.” —The Free Lance Star
“Deeply emotional…A first-rate literary work and a character study of loss.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Beautiful.” —Publishers Weekly
“An intense and moving story of post–Holocaust Jewish immigrants.” —Booklist
“This…enjoyable novel will certainly appeal to those with an interest in Jewish literature as well as to general readers.” —Library Journal
“[An] intriguing novel…heartbreaking and poignant.” —ForeWord Reviews
“In this poignant, vivid, and richly humane novel, Evelyn Toynton measures the weight of personal tragedy against the great catastrophes of 20th century history. Through its acute portrayal of émigré lives, The Oriental Wife deepens our insight into the condition of exile, the ambiguities of Americanization, and the arbitrariness of each love and each human fate.” —Eva Hoffman, author of Appassionata
“Evelyn Toynton puts me in mind of Jean Rhys: I felt that this was not a story I was reading but a life I was living. Beautifully written, richly evocative, The Oriental Wife had me in thrall from start to finish.” —Lynn Freed, author of The Servants' Quarters
“The Oriental Wife is a clear-eyed but tender, always intelligent, and beautifully observed group portrait of German Jews, their lives shattered by the Third Reich, painfully finding their way in England and the New World. A remarkable and virtuous achievement!” —Louis Begley, author of, most recently, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters
“Rolf and Louisa are among the lucky few to escape Hitler’s Germany, but that’s where their luck ends. This is a tender, moving novel about the cruelty of fate, the difficulty of goodness, and the gulf between the suffering of refugees and the innocence of America.” —Carole Angier, the author of The Double Bond: The Life of Primo Levi
“It’s a grim story, told with acuity and elegance, of a life that seems sadly destined to be always alien to its surroundings.” –Lilith Magazine
Painful echoes of the Holocaust resonate in Toynton's literary effort.
In the troubled years between the World Wars, Rolf and Otto, and Otto's cousin, Louisa, children of prosperous Jewish families in Nuremberg, Germany, become devoted friends. In the midst of growing unrest and increasing anti-Semitism, Franz and his wife, a woman plagued by "nerves," send Louisa to a Swiss boarding school, then to England. Rolf's family too realizes Hitler's hell is descending on Jews. With family help, Rolf emigrates to America, finds employment and plunges into volunteer work helping other Jews escape. Otto follows. Louisa, however, is seduced by one Englishman, and then another, before the friends finally meet in New York City. Stolid, conservative Rolf and fun-loving, adventurous Louisa marry, each seeking what the other will never be able to give. Louisa becomes pregnant. Then she is almost immediately diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. Surgery leaves her partially paralyzed and baby Emma in the care of a duplicitous housekeeper, a hypocrite Rolf cannot recognize. That Louisa is no longer the person Rolf idealized leads to divorce, something they each regard as a confirmation of their destiny to be unhappy. Adult Emma sees the divorce as betrayal, a failure later mirrored when Emma is betrayed by her own lover, a mysterious Cambodian activist. While almost every other character is superbly realized, Otto's story is the least explored, perhaps presenting him as a metaphor for those who escaped without crippling emotional damage. Toynton also delves into the melancholy fate of Louisa's parents and their friends, a doctor and his wife, who fled the Nazis but languish in America, haunted by the "Old World...with all its weight of senseless suffering." Toynton's work is deeply emotional, capturing the malaise shadowing those from whom everything familiar, everything loved, has been stolen, symbolized at the novel's conclusion by an heirloom locket snatched away from Emma by a mugger.
A first-rate literary work and a character study of loss.
- Other Press, LLC
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Read an Excerpt
At the school in Lausanne, the Italian boarders wore silk underwear and high-heeled sandals, and painted each other’s toenails after tea, but they crossed themselves a lot and were strict about their purity; they were saving themselves for the men they would marry. The English, they said, rolling their eyes, had no morals whatsoever. “Is due to their climate. Everybody go to bed with everybody there to become warm.”
But Louisa did not believe this. The English girls, with their light scornful voices and careless grace, were so clearly a higher order of being. At dinner they commandeered the best table, as though by right, and afterwards took possession of the red parlor next door, where there was a fire laid every night, and a vase of silk peonies was reflected in an ornate gilt mirror. If one of the Greeks or Germans or Italians wandered in to retrieve a book or a handkerchief left behind during the day, the English girls would fall silent, watching her, until she retreated again.
Everyone grumbled about them behind their backs—it was a bond among all the other nations—but was nonetheless eager for their approval. The Swiss girls seemed happy to be asked about local dressmakers or cafes; the French girls, when approached to explain the rules of the subjunctive in their language, were delighted to oblige.
The most glittering of the English boarders was Celia, who could often be heard on the telephone under the stairs, expressing disbelief: “Tell me you didn’t. Are you completely barking mad, poppet?…He can’t have. Not even the Caitfords are that stupid…” She had once stopped Louisa on the landing and asked her if she happened to have seen a pink kid glove anywhere; Louisa wished passionately that she could produce it, but she couldn’t, and Celia went on up the stairs.
Meet the Author
Evelyn Toynton’s last novel, Modern Art, was a NewYork Times Notable Book of the Year and was long-listed for the Ambassador Award of the English-Speaking Union. A frequent contributor to Harper’s, she has also written for The Atlantic, The American Scholar, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New York Times Book Review, and her work has appeared in a number of anthologies, including Rereadings (edited by Anne Fadiman) and Mentors, Muses & Monsters. She lives in Norfolk, England.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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In the 1930s her Jewish parents send teenager Louisa to a school in Lausanne, Switzerland. There she meets and falls in love with a classmate's brother Julian. Meanwhile her father sees the deadly winds of war coming so he sends to Louisa her grandmother's jewelry. Louisa's cousin Otto and her childhood friend from Nuremberg Rolf flee Germany for New York where they obtain jobs. Meanwhile Louisa reaches England where she learns foreigners even experienced professionals can only hold domestic servant positions. Louisa gets a governess job. She eventually reaches New York with the help of her lover Phillip who becomes an angry drunk. She and Rolf marry while their parents are tortured in Germany and many Jews ate sent to Dachau. Rolf gets his mother and Louisa's parents to America but they lost everything to the Nazis. When the war breaks out, the German Jews find Americans loathe them as much as the Nazis did. The Oriental Wife is a terrific timely historical thriller that grips the audience with the bleakness of Europe and America during the Nazi era. Hope is gone for the Jews left behind in Germany while those fortunate to cross the Atlantic find America hostile to the immigrants. Character driven, dreams of assimilation by the first generation of German Jewish refugees in the 1930s fail to occur as nightmarish suspicions and culpability are the prime welcome. The impact on the second generation is powerful as "Never Forget" denotes the past and the potential future. Harriet Klausner
I loved this book! From the struggles of the Jewish people in the early rumblings of WWII to there everyday lives, both struggles and successes in America, this story keeps the reader's interest through I was confused most of the way through by the book's title.
This book was recommended by a friend, loved it from beginning to end. Louisa was my favorite character in this story, I truly admired her strength & loyalty for her family and friends. The end was a surprise but a good ending to this story.
I was very disappointed in the book as a whole. The author did a lot of jumping around in the plot. It was like a brief overview of another story. Details seemed to be lacking in parts of the story. Usually I enjoy books that i read, I am very open minded but this one was lacking. I never really figured out how the author got the title for this book. The phrase Oriental Wife was mentioned maybe once or twice in the story but to me it just does not fit the story.
I was really transfixed by the history provided in this book, all the while building up our characters and surprising us with conflicts. However, the majority of my time spent with the book resulted in my utter disappointment in the characters, who see not to live up to our expectations. The last 150 pages is spent praying Louisa will overcome her hardships, but she never does, which is completely dissatisfying. As we watch her daughter come into her own skin, we realize that some things will just never be fixed, and the same disappointment we, as the reader come to grow accustom to, Emma cannot. We really do pity the women in this story, whether Sophie, Louisa, or Emma, and I agree with other reviews that this is a great book on studying loss, and what it does to people. They will either overcome or let it go entirely, unless you're Emma, who struggles with both. Heavily sad, but worth the read. I would've liked to see some loose ends tied, but I enjoyed the realistic aspect that considers unresolved endings in our own lives.
Very choppy and dry.
Sparse physical description here. As a result, not entirely successful in evoking the eras (1910's-1960's) through which the characters move. However, the rather flat, bland style of writing perfectly conveys the novel's themes of sadness, loss, diaspora and alienation. Having spent time in Nurnberg and having been babysat as a child by a German emigre couple similar to Louisa and Rolf, the novel had personal resonance for me.
Found confusing at times. Overall great story of freedom and love