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The Oriental Wife Paperback – July 19, 2011

3.5 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press (July 19, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590514416
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590514412
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,631,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By lisatheratgirl VINE VOICE on June 28, 2011
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
There are lots of novels about the Second World War and the Holocaust, but lately they are focusing on the ones who got away--lucky. How lucky were they really? I don't mean they weren't better off than people who were shipped to the death camps, but the people in this book, who went to England and the United States did not find anything remotely like their old lives in Germany, and it was no paradise. Louisa, a young Jewish girl, leaves Nuremberg (the most Nazified city of them all) to study in England. Her father, a lawyer, has enough foresight to see what is coming, and during the mid-30s he is able to get some of her grandmother's jewelry to her. Rolf and Otto, Louisa's childhood friends, get jobs in New York. Louisa runs out of money and is told the only job foreigners can get in England is as domestic servants. This is later confirmed by Gustav, their old family doctor, who knew many doctors and lawyers in Munich who were learning how to become butlers in hopes of getting a job in England. Through some lucky connections, Louisa is able to get a job as a governess. It's explained that during the hyperinflation of the 1920s, German children were starving, and many can't do heavy work. Eventually Louisa makes it to New York and marries Rolf. Their parents, left behind in Germany, go through the horrors of the Kristallnacht, and the three fathers are shipped to Dachau with other Jewish men. This is all totally accurate; there are whole books on the subject. Rolf manages to get his mother and Louisa's parents to America, but the Nazis confiscate most of their property and elderly people can't work. The doctor finds work as a translator and his daughter gets a job cleaning. The young men are drafted when the United States enters the war.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A story of assimilated upper class German Jews, who basically escaped the Holocaust, but in fact did not. A couple are brought together and then destroyed by the sort of betrayal that sneaks up on one.

This is a very spare and elegant novel about basically passive people and their response to tragedy. It is beautifully written and emotionally powerful, the characters are very well realized and the experience of reading felt more like slipping on someone else's skin than anything else. All its flaws are minor and its merits are great.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Louisa and Rolfe grew up childhood friends in Germany. When the winds of war began to once again blow, Louisa's parents encouraged her to travel abroad. Through a series of events and relationships, she ended up in America, where she was reunited with her childhood friends. They married, and life seemed blissful, until an unfortunate mistake during surgery forever changed Louisa's life.

I have to say, I am a bit disappointed in this book. While the description of the book never told anything untrue, it certainly did not paint a completely accurate picture of the book. I am an avid fan of World War II fiction, so setting coupled with the description really appealed to me.

I thought the development of the characters was good in the first half of the book. I loved learning Louisa's story, and hearing about her travels. But the second half of the book just seemed lacking. We make a huge jump from Emma (Louisa's daughter)'s childhood to her adulthood without getting a real sense of Emma as a character. And the arc about her sleeping with her Asian boss was just, well, unnecessary, I found. I am sure it was meant to show something about Emma's character, but to me, it was just distracting.

Overall, I found the book to be a bit on the boring side. I was not able to really engage with the characters enough to have much of a vested interest in the book.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I tore through this book in two days and carried it everywhere with me so I wouldn't miss a chance to read it. Evelyn Toynton's story of two German Jewish immigrants is not your standard happily-ever-after coming-to-America story. And that's why I loved it so much.

Early on, Louisa, her cousin Otto, and his best friend Rolf form a tight bond as children in 1920s and 1930s Germany. You'd never know they were Jewish until the Nazis march into Nuremberg and their families are arrested, sent to concentration camps, or worse. Luckily the trio leaves Germany before Kristallnacht and all's well in New York--until tragedy strikes.

I thought Toynton developed her characters beautifully and kept the pace of the book moving steadily throughout the story. The title kept me guessing as to what would come next, but in the end I realized it'd been obvious all along. The end kind of comes out of nowhere, but it still works for me.

If you're going to read one book this summer, I'd suggest The Oriental Wife. It's a deep, passionate, and unexpected story that kept me thinking about it long after I'd finished.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The Oriental Wife is a story wrought with the difficulties of life that have repercussions that are far-reaching, affecting not only the people who encounter them, but also the people who love and surround them. This is the story of Rolf and Louisa and their life as immigrants to the United States. In the background is the Nazi occupation of Germany and its effects on family and friends.

The title of this book comes from a passage early on in the novel, when Louisa is speaking with a Japanese friend at her Swiss boarding school. When her friend mentions it, she explains that even if she's living in Europe, if she's married to a Japanese man, she'll still be expected to be an "Oriental wife" with downcast eyes, suppressing herself into the background and living her life by her husband's side. This also meant, not finding herself as a person, doing what was right for herself, and being free.

Interestingly enough, although Louisa is not Asian herself, her life reflects that of an Oriental wife. The choices that she makes and the choices that others make for her, put her in a position of having to stand up for herself, or to be the Oriental wife. (No spoilers here, sorry.) However, we do, as readers, learn what the long-lasting effects of these decisions do to those around Louisa: her daughter, her husband, and her parents.

The author's writing is engaging. When I picked up the book, I was nearly immediately engaged and didn't feel that push to get through the beginning and into a part where I knew more of the characters. The character development is pretty good, at least for Louisa. Toward the end, I have to admit, I felt like I didn't know her anymore, or more so that she ceased to be the person that I thought she was.
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