Questions for Evelyn Toynton on The Oriental Wife
Q: What was your inspiration for the novel, particularly Louisa’s character?
A: The novel is based, though loosely, on the story of my parents. I tried to imagine my mother as she had been before a botched operation shattered her life. In a way, that really meant creating the character from scratch, since I hadn't known the person my mother had been. But from old photographs and some anecdotes she told me, I had a sense of a young woman who was rather fragile but also a bit reckless, someone with a lot of romantic notions about life--and men--who was essentially not very well equipped to deal with harsh reality, nor to fight her corner. So that became the basis for Louisa's character.
Q: Many of the characters are Jewish immigrants who escaped Hitler’s Germany before it was too late. Despite being physically spared the horrors of concentration camps, everyone still must cope with their survivor’s guilt, albeit in a variety of ways. Did you feel it important to show the wider implication the Holocaust had to the Jewish community, even outside of Europe?
A: I'm not sure how important it is, given all the other problems in the world today, but I certainly feel there were many more lives affected by the Nazi persecutions than the figures cited for the dead would indicate. However fortunate they were to have escaped the horrors of the camps, emigrants who had experienced the nightmarish violence of Kristallnacht, after years of being demonized and turned into pariahs by the anti-Jewish laws, clearly had their own suffering to contend with as they struggled to start over in a place that was totally foreign to them. I tried to imagine, though really I can't imagine, what it was like for them to endure such a loss--of their country, their language, their right to practice their professions, as well as all their money and possessions--in middle age. Add to that their fears for the people they had left behind, and (in the case of Franz in particular) vivid memories of the terrible fate that had already befallen those they loved, and it's hard to see how they could simply put the past behind them and move on. Finally, as I tried to show with Gustav, many seemingly admirable human qualities, like sensitivity and compassion, only get in the way of the fight for survival. That still seems true for many refugees nowadays, not just the German Jews.
Q: Louisa is ostracized and isolated after the accident. However, her physical handicaps are, by today’s standards, rather manageable. How do you feel the story would have changed if this had happened 50 years later?
A: I am not sure if her marriage would have survived, but certainly she wouldn't have been hidden away for thirty years, and made to feel that her handicaps (which, as you point out, weren't that severe) were something for her to feel ashamed of. At the very least, she would have received various forms of physical therapy, and could have made some kind of life for herself. I also don't think everyone concerned would automatically have assumed that she had to surrender custody of her child because of her disabilities.
Q: The character of Rolf could easily have become a villain, yet instead, the reader often feels sorry for him. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
A: Definitely. I don't think it would be so interesting to show a bad man doing a bad thing--at least it wouldn't to me. I wanted to explore what happens when a man with a strong conscience does something that goes against all his principles, and then has to live with the knowledge of it for the rest of his life.
English novelist Evelyn Toynton uses Hitler’s Germany as a backdrop and New York City as the setting for a story about love and survival. . . . “When [Toynton] describes love and lovemaking, the emotional high points of Louisa’s and Emma’s life seem to leap from the page. As when Emma goes to bed with Kim, her Cambodian refugee lover, and ‘by the end, there was not a single bone in her body, only blind heat and his breath moving through her.’ In case you’re worried this novel might veer more toward soap opera than superior fiction, consider that last line. No soap opera I know ever made you feel that. No, no, no.”—Alan Cheuse, NPR’s All Things Considered
“In this tender and moving work, two immigrants manage to escape Hitler’s Germany to start a new life in America—but then their luck runs out.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Toynton’s character development is solid, and her prose is masterful. The Oriental Wife
is a deeply moving exploration of the eternal themes of love, loss and regret.” —The Free Lance Star
“Deeply emotional…A first-rate literary work and a character study of loss.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Beautiful.” —Publishers Weekly
“An intense and moving story of post–Holocaust Jewish immigrants.” —Booklist
“This…enjoyable novel will certainly appeal to those with an interest in Jewish literature as well as to general readers.” —Library Journal
“[An] intriguing novel…heartbreaking and poignant.” —ForeWord Reviews
“In this poignant, vivid, and richly humane novel, Evelyn Toynton measures the weight of personal tragedy against the great catastrophes of 20th century history. Through its acute portrayal of émigré lives, The Oriental Wife
deepens our insight into the condition of exile, the ambiguities of Americanization, and the arbitrariness of each love and each human fate.” —Eva Hoffman, author of Appassionata
“Evelyn Toynton puts me in mind of Jean Rhys: I felt that this was not a story I was reading but a life I was living. Beautifully written, richly evocative, The Oriental Wife
had me in thrall from start to finish.” —Lynn Freed, author of The Servants' Quarters
“The Oriental Wife
is a clear-eyed but tender, always intelligent, and beautifully observed group portrait of German Jews, their lives shattered by the Third Reich, painfully finding their way in England and the New World. A remarkable and virtuous achievement!” —Louis Begley, author of, most recently, Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters
“Rolf and Louisa are among the lucky few to escape Hitler’s Germany, but that’s where their luck ends. This is a tender, moving novel about the cruelty of fate, the difficulty of goodness, and the gulf between the suffering of refugees and the innocence of America.” —Carole Angier, the author of The Double Bond: The Life of Primo Levi
“It’s a grim story, told with acuity and elegance, of a life that seems sadly destined to be always alien to its surroundings.” –Lilith Magazine