The Oriental Wife by Evelyn Toynton is a moving character study of loss. The novel begins in Germany during World War One where Jewish childhood friends: Rolf, Otto and Louisa play their games as the country swings from defeat and complete economic collapse to the rise of the Nazis and economic recovery. They see the mentally and physically wounded WW1 veterans everywhere but they are as much a part of the everyday landscape as are the war wounds of their parents.
As the trio grows up, Toynton concentrates her story on Louisa. She is a bright, pretty girl with a neurotic, almost abusive Mother and a kind-hearted, doting, socially conscious Father. To get Louisa out of harm’s way she is sent to a boarding school in Switzerland. Her Father’s advice that she focuses her studies in learning languages suggests that he is as worried about Louisa’s future in Germany as he is about the effect of her Mother’s mental health on her.
While at school Louisa does study diligently. She also begins a pattern of making bad choices regarding men. Her choices take her to England, California and eventually to New York City where she is rescued by Otto and Rolf. They have immigrated to escape the persecution of the Nazis. Rolf has become a successful business man who uses his time away from the office to work doggedly in aiding other refugees. Otto has become….the least realized of any of the characters in the novel. He seems to be around to be an idealized American. Someone buoyant, empathetic, whose past struggles do not shadow his future.
Appropriately enough given their new life in the new world where the past can be jettisoned, Louisa and Rolf begin a 1930’s Hollywood romantic relationship. Louisa is the free spirited heroine who will bring fun and optimism to Rolf’s stiff and plodding good guy. The problem is that neither one of them is what they seem. Louisa’s flighty humor masks a deep fear of expressing any negativity that will result in being rejected and then alone. Below Rolf’s role as protector of the weak and integrity filled humanitarian is a hypocrite whose help to others is a need to make their weaknesses invisible. Their happiness will depend on how well they can protect their self-deceptions from real life.
This is a war story where all the battle scenes are civilian and interior. Toynton uses our knowledge of history to her advantage. She doesn’t pad The Oriental Wife with dates and names. She realizes that by merely mentioning a battle or an event she can call upon our awareness of the time period and that we will then fill in the cultural outline ourselves.
Toynton’s transcendent examination of not only Louisa and Rolf but also of their daughter, Louisa’s parents, the elderly Jewish immigrants Sophia and Gustav and the housekeeper Mrs. Sprague is masterful. Toyton makes the most of the smallest action of her characters. Everything is telling. The writing is incredibly impressive. The Oriental Wife isn’t a novel you read to find out what happens next so much as to find out why it couldn’t happen any other way.
P.S. The cover? Exquisite! What is it about shoes that can make a cover so appealing? I'm no shoe person and still I find them irresistible .