The Oriental Wife

The Oriental Wife

3.4 10
by Evelyn Toynton

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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,See more details below


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.

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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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.

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