The Oriental Wife: A Novel

The Oriental Wife: A Novel

by Evelyn Toynton

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Overview

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
Sales rank: 366,327
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?

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