The Oriental Wife

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The Oriental Wife

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Toynton's second novel is a sad, quiet tale of desperate refugees from Nazi Germany trying to build new lives in America while holding on to pieces of their past. Louisa, the teenage daughter of Jewish parents, is sent to an international school in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she persuades herself she's fallen in love with Julian, a schoolmate's brother, although she's more in love with the idea of him than the actual man. She travels to London before the war, where she drifts into a relationship with Phillip, another Englishman, who wants to write about the experiences of German-Jewish refugees. Phillip takes her with him to the U.S., promising marriage, hoping Louisa can help him gain access to refugees through her cousin Otto and his friend Rolf. When Phillip becomes abusive and alcoholic, Louisa flees back to Otto and Rolf, and winds up marrying Rolf. What seems like a fresh hope for the future quickly descends into years of endurance after a medical diagnosis changes all their lives—Louisa's, Rolf's, and their daughter, Emma's. The writing is beautiful, but the book is unrelentingly sad. Even during the brief passages of happiness, one waits for Toynton to drop the inevitable other shoe on the heads of her unlucky characters. (July)
From the Publisher
English novelist Evelyn Toynton uses Hitler’s Germany as a backdrop and New York City as the setting for a story about love and survival. . . . “When [Toynton] describes love and lovemaking, the emotional high points of Louisa’s and Emma’s life seem to leap from the page. As when Emma goes to bed with Kim, her Cambodian refugee lover, and ‘by the end, there was not a single bone in her body, only blind heat and his breath moving through her.’ In case you’re worried this novel might veer more toward soap opera than superior fiction, consider that last line. No soap opera I know ever made you feel that. No, no, no.”—Alan Cheuse, NPR’s All Things Considered

“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

Library Journal
Toynton (Modern Art) returns with the story of Louisa and Rolf, childhood friends in Nuremberg who escape Hitler's Germany and eventually settle in New York. Louisa leaves as a young woman to study art history in London and travels to New York with her English boyfriend. Rolf works diligently to find sponsors and employment for Jewish refugees trying desperately to get to America. It seems that serious, almost melancholy Rolf and the modern, glamorous Louisa have little in common, but when she seeks out Rolf and their mutual friend Otto after her relationship ends and she has nowhere to go, Rolf and Louisa fall in love. They marry and settle into a happy life in their Jewish community of friends and old neighbors, and they have a daughter. Unfortunately, a disastrous event shatters their marriage, and their plans for the future are tragically altered. VERDICT At times very sad, this nonetheless enjoyable novel will certainly appeal to those with an interest in Jewish literature as well as to general readers.—Shaunna Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll., VA
Kirkus Reviews

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590514412
  • Publisher: Other Press, LLC
  • Publication date: 7/19/2011
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,404,040
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Reading Group Guide

1. Before Otto or Louisa, Rolf emigrates to America. He seems to have a strong vision of the American Dream, and to associate it with the promise of the Western Frontier. In what ways do associated themes of liberation and adventure come to fruition in his life?

2. Discuss the power structure evidenced in Louisa’s relationship with men over the course of her adolescence and adulthood. In what ways is she powerful or powerless in relation to these young men, notably Julian, Phillip, and Rolf?

3. Dr. Seidelbaum commits a near-fatal—and debilitating—error during surgery. Is there an underlying message here about the extent to which life can or cannot be controlled?

4. In World War I, Franz, Sigmund, and Emil—Louisa’s, Rolf’s, and Otto’s fathers, respectively—received an Iron Cross for bravery. They are models of heroism. Do their progeny honor this memory? Do any of them evince heroism themselves, even if it takes a different form?

5. As a member of the refugee committee on which her husband serves, Louisa tries to minister to German Jews who are struggling to survive in New York. In one instance, she gives ribbon and a green bead necklace (p. 65), and in others, “lace doilies or French soap” (p. 109). Even if these gifts are frivolous, are Louisa’s ministrations to be discounted?

6. In your view, is Mrs. Sprague manipulative or well intentioned? What does she do to convince you of either opinion?

7. Gustav and Sophie Joseftal argue about whether Rolf is being “cruel” or “just” to Louisa once she has become partially paralyzed (p. 171). Does Rolf’s attempt to be just to her itself become a form of cruelty? Is it possible to be just and cruel at the same time? If so, how?

8. When Sophie Joseftal counsels Louisa to fire Mrs. Sprague over her controlling care of Emma, Louisa replies that “[Emma] has the right to her loves”—in other words, a right to her apparent preference for Mrs. Sprague (p. 189). How do you see this issue of “the right to love” at play within the novel? 

9. What is the significance of the “Oriental wife” within the novel? In what ways do Louisa’s and Emma’s encounters with this persona reinforce or contradict one another?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 10 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 5, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    a terrific timely historical thriller

    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

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2011

    Fun, sad, and full of history.

    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.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 12, 2012

    This book was recommended by a friend, loved it from beginning t

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 31, 2011

    Not what I thought!

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 5, 2013

    Very choppy and dry. 

    Very choppy and dry. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    Overall, a good read

    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.

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  • Posted August 2, 2011

    Ok read

    Found confusing at times. Overall great story of freedom and love

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2013

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