The Oriental Wife

The Oriental Wife

by Evelyn Toynton

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The Oriental Wife by 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590514429
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 07/19/2011
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 239
File size: 2 MB

About 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.

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.

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?

Customer Reviews

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The Oriental Wife 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Two2dogs More than 1 year ago
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.
oklasugr More than 1 year ago
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.
Alexis-Elise More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
bongie More than 1 year ago
Very choppy and dry. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Marci Weiss More than 1 year ago
Found confusing at times. Overall great story of freedom and love