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THE ORIENTAL WIFE by Evelyn Toynton


by Evelyn Toynton

Pub Date: July 19th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59051-441-2
Publisher: Other Press

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.