The Oriental Wife
- Evelyn Toynton
- Other Press
- 304 pp.
- September 21, 2011
For a group of Jewish friends in New York who fled Nazi Germany, forging a happier life is tested by other kinds of tragedy.
Reviewed by Shelley Temchin
With delicacy and precision, Evelyn Toynton’s The Oriental Wife recounts the lives of a group of German Jews who have fled the Holocaust to settle in America. Its carefully observed characters include a former doctor who cannot stop weeping and his stoical wife who cannot start, an idealistic young man who enlists in the American army, and the mother of another such hero who commits suicide when her son is killed in action.
Like almost everyone else, most of these refugees had been slow to grasp what was happening in the country they thought was their home. Many had felt safe, protected by their German-ness; all were incapable of imagining the enormity of the calamity that would befall them. But their cultivated manners and professional achievements had not exempted them from scorn and persecution; the Iron Cross awarded for bravery had not been enough to save one of them from near-death at Dachau.
In their new home most of the refugees do not talk about the privations and losses they have survived, not to each other and certainly not to Americans, whose lack of interest, or at best, their open-hearted naïveté, only deepens the gulf between them. Neither, for the most part, does Toynton, who evokes the horrors of Nazi Germany in searing, concise strokes but focuses on the lives of three longtime friends who have been able to escape from Europe before the worst of the Holocaust has occurred.
Their story begins in World War I-era Germany. With their fathers off to war, their maids working in munitions factories and their mothers too distracted to care for them, three young children navigate a harrowing landscape of death and destruction largely on their own. Men who had left as heroes of the Fatherland come hobbling back with wooden legs and broken spirits; stray British bombs fall indiscriminately from the sky; squabbling factions shoot each other in the streets. And always, everywhere, there is hunger. Otto is a kind-hearted child determined to protect his playmate Louisa not only from the mayhem surrounding them but also from the unpredictable rages of a mother driven half-mad by the loss of her brother. Rolf, on the other hand, seeks refuge in Wild West adventure books, imagining himself as a pure and noble German cowboy traversing endless prairies with an Indian soul mate to combat evil and restore peace.
Louisa, whom we first see posing as nurse to her playmates in make-believe battles, soon starts having her own dreams as she begins to notice the way men look at her and the shivery, unsettled feeling she has when they touch her. Later, alone and afraid in London, she takes up with the kind of moody, derisive men she has read about in romance novels, men whose coldness she mistakes for strength as she waits, unsuccessfully, for happiness to come.
The second of these reluctant rescuers will take her to New York, where she finds Otto, who welcomes her warmly, and Rolf, who observes with pain and resentment the affectionate banter between his old friends. The boy who once dreamed of starry Montana skies now works for a pencil factory by day and a refugee rescue committee by night. Honest and principled, humorless and determined, more dutiful than kind, he has no time for sentiment. When he falls in love with Louisa, the intensity of his need and desire frightens him and thrills her. Their joy is crowned with Louisa’s pregnancy, an affirmation of love and confidence in the future that buoys the entire community of friends and relatives that Rolf has managed to bring over.
But the idyll ends swiftly when a surgical error transforms the young mother into an invalid, barely able to move or speak. The giddy coquette that many of the other women had resented for her shallowness has become a helpless, clumsy burden who soon loses custody of her baby and the love of her husband. Ashamed and disgusted with himself but unable to overcome the revulsion he feels for her, Rolf grudgingly doles out money to pay for his wife’s care but leaves her for his vulgar secretary.
Louisa, too, is wracked by self-recrimination. Humiliated and sick, she falls into a deep depression punctuated by occasional visits from her daughter Emma that seem only to emphasize her isolation. Rolf’s betrayal and her own infirmity dissolve into a bleak miasma of self-doubt and regret, compounded by the realization that her own tragedy has destroyed the only remaining hope of restoring her parents’ shattered lives. Again and again she wonders whether she has the ability or even the right to be happy.
One of the strengths of this subtle and luminous novel is its compassionate but clear-eyed view of each of its characters: victims of the Holocaust, devastating everyday disasters of illness and accidents, or the isolation of immigrant life alike. Their suffering extends beyond that of the direct victims to encompass the lives of their families as well. Some are defeated; most manage to get by. If, as Louisa’s father thinks, “delight, adventure, all that would be deferred for one more generation,” the novel leaves open some possibility of hope. With the help of friends, Louisa summons the courage and strength to reach out to Emma, who has suffered as much from not having a mother as Louisa has from losing her daughter. Better equipped now to understand her family’s tragic past, Emma can at least imagine a future made not only of guilt and loss but also of happiness and love.
Shelley Temchin teaches French at Georgetown University. She has written on George Sand, Cocteau and Rita Mae Brown.