The Oriental Wife, some thoughts

In honor of the blog reaching over 1,000 views, I’m expanding the scope of the blog beyond dating.  Hopefully you’ll see even more content to interest you!

I just finished reading the novel, The Oriental Wife, by Evelyn Toynton, and found it remarkable.

A quick read, the narrative flows effortlessly as the reader follows the complex emotional strain that lovers, family, social groups, war, and genocide impose on individuals.  The story begins with sketches of post-WWI Germany through Louisa and Rolf’s points of view as children, and as Louisa becomes a young adult exiled in foreign lands, Nazism unfolds.  In adulthood, their love story is shown through Rolf’s view, whereas the disintegration of their relationship is observed by an older refugee couple, Louisa’s childhood doctor and his wife.  Lastly we see the long-tailed impact of their broken and opaque history on Emma, their American-born daughter.


What strikes me about this story is that it is told strictly from the ground level — there is no broad-brushing of history or high-minded symbolism and language.  All that is shown is how each individual responds to and thinks about what is happening, how they choose to interact with others, and the slow death wreaked by the human instinct to shield oneself from pain and suffering.

The book focuses not on morality but on experience, much like the way we relay stories about our childhood.  Louisa’s time spent in London is occupied with being accepted and loved, rather than with the worrying fact that her father is sending a few valuables to her hidden in packages, signaling a curtailing of liberties.  What we tell others and understand about ourselves is based on how we have experienced our lives, which is entirely subjective and at times, bears no relation to events of significance to others.  We may attempt to contextualize written history, but history rarely trumps our varied, individual experiences.

Refugees cannot know what it must have been like for families and friends left behind who were brutalized or massacred.  They can only guess from afar, and those guesses are fraught with grief and guilt for not being there with them: “Even husbands and wives could not talk of those things, when they turned off the light, they lay silent, their backs to each other, and did not shut their eyes.”  Rather than being free, refugees’ lives are in a state of captive disruption, so that limited access to external resources (ability to make a living, physical comforts, and network of family and friends) is compounded by limited internal resources (emotional peace, certainty, sense of belonging, and ease of communication.)

At a micro-level, people suffering in unhappy relationships face the same types of challenges:  emotional isolation, self-doubt, uncertainty, pain, or feeling trapped.  Rolf willfully puts on blinders to hide from his fears and his sense of helplessness in the face of Louisa’s affliction, blinders in the form of analytical work, refugee assistance, committee work.  It is easier for him to put effort into the mechanics of obtaining exit visas for other German Jews than to display emotional weakness, so that he distances himself physically and emotionally from his wife.  While this protects him at a day-to-day level, his choices oppress those closest to him and have devastating long-term consequences.Toynton shows how “goodness” is a moving target, especially under extreme pressures and when the rules shift.  It would be reassuring to know that one could maintain one’s capacity to love, and be wise enough to know what to do when tested by the unimaginable — but there is no guarantee of success.

I highly recommend this thought-provoking and poignant book!

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