Friday, November 11, 2011

The Oriental Wife

Finished The Oriental Wife by Evelyn Toynton. The title may be a bit misleading until you garner it's relevance a little ways into the novel. In the end it makes complete sense. What does not is the summary on the inside jacket flap, which is also used as the description on Amazon,

"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."

The characters are not children when they leave Germany, nor do they flee, although their parents try to later. I don't see the thing that shatters their lives as a "freakish accident." This description seems ill informed and written in haste, as if gleaned from cliff notes. It does not begin to touch on the deep feeling of the characters, their very human flaws or the poignancy of this story. In essence I think it negates the weight and significance of the work.

That being said, the book is weighty with sorrow, but it's sorrow that needs to be known. One character, who emigrates to New York grieves daily of the small sorrows in the newspaper, a young mother of two who throws herself in front of a train, the death of a panda at the zoo. This is transference of grief that he cannot possibly express, for people he loved who were murdered in the Holocaust.

I was struck by how the main character Louisa, a German Jew, attended boarding school in Switzerland in the thirties, living amongst German, French, English and even Japanese girls her age, just a few years before World War II.

Ultimately this book is about misplaced loyalties and their consequences. A melancholy, but very rich read.

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