Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book 4: The Lost Wife

When I was younger, I read a lot of novels and books about World War II.  These topics still tend to show up quite a bit in my reading lists, though I no longer necessarily pursue them actively.  However, if someone recommends a Holocaust book or I stumble across one at the book store, I will usually pick it up.  While browsing through Barnes and Noble last weekend (I had a four day weekend, and somehow, whenever I feel like I should leave the house but have no clue what to do, I always end up at the bookstore with a chai latte or white chocolate mocha), I noticed this novel on the shelf due to the vintage looking picture in a European setting (it's Prague, but I wasn't looking closely enough to consciously register that at first glance).  After reading the back cover, I was sold.  Now, as many Holocaust novels as I've read, I am not sure if I'm a good judge of them.  Since it is a topic I have read so much over the past, one would think that would make me a harsh critic.  Instead, I seem to have a blind/soft spot for these novels, and I will rarely find faults with them.  For example, in any other novel, I would probably be skeptical of the love story or slightly cynical, but in this case, I basically accept that these characters meet and fall in love quickly (I also started this right after A Discovery of Witches, so I may have felt it was unfair that I bought Josef and Lenka's love story but not Diana and Matthew's, but really these characters are more developed in half the time).
The novel begins with a wedding in the present day.  The groom's grandfather and the bride's grandmother meet for the first time at the rehearsal dinner, and the grandfather feels that he knows the grandmother from somewhere.  The chapter ends with the man, Josef, declaring that he is her husband.  From there, the novel flashes back in time to Prague in the 1930s, and alternate chapters between Lenka and Josef.  The set up is interesting: while Richman alternates between the two characters, the stories are actually very different.  Josef tells a story of life after loss, and his marriage to Amalia, another Jewish woman, whom he met after the end of the war.  While discussing his life after the war, he occasionally goes back further as he reminisces about certain scenes in his life.  However, for the most part, Josef tells about his life with Amalia and his children, their quiet and muted love that is rather passionless but safe.  Both suffer from survivor's guilt, and Josef remains haunted by the thoughts of his first love, Lenka.  Normally, it would bug me if someone was still obsessing about their first love after fifty years, but this wasn't a normal break up - Josef believes that he lost her to the war and the Holocaust.  It's a relationship that ended unnaturally and suddenly and as result, it haunts him.  Lenka's story on the other hand is one of survival, covering her time in Prague, as the rules get stricter and stricter until she and her family are moved to Terezin (Theresienstadt), the "model" concentration camp, or the one that Nazi officials used to show the Red Cross that they weren't mistreating the Jews.
Since Richman uses Terezin as a setting, she introduces many actual historical figures.  Lenka was an art student, and ends up working in the art department, surrounded by men and women whose secret work, buried throughout the camp, survived the Holocaust to give witness to their experiences.  Some of the people Lenka meets and knows include Bedrich Fritta, Leo Haas and Otto Unger.  In fact, Richman's description of Otto's death reminded me of a scene from the TV miniseries Holocaust (back before Netflix, my dad would borrow very random things from the library) which may well have been inspired by the actual artist's life.  The miniseries Holocaust and the film The Last Butterfly both explored life in Terezin since it was such an oddity, though I can't think of many novels at this moment that devote much time to Terezin.  I'm sure there are some, but most tend to focus on the bigger camps (Auschwitz was also addressed in this novel since that's where many of Terezin's prisoners were eventually deported to).  The prisoners of Terezin lived in squalor, misery, and fear, and yet they also had some chances and freedoms that weren't available in other camps.  Richman explains in an interview that her original intent with this novel was to write about the Holocaust from an artist's perspective, and the love story idea came later after she overheard a conversation about a situation similar to the one that starts off the novel.
I thought the novel worked well; obviously, the reader knows that Lenka will survive, but I really enjoyed how Richman explored these characters' lives.  I would warn that part of the back cover was misleading (at least to me).  At one point, it states that "an unexpected encounter in New York leads to an inescapable glance of recognition, and the realization that providence has given Lenka and Josef one more chance."  This novel doesn't explore this second chance.  The wedding is used purely as a framing device, and while part of me was curious how things would play out between Josef and Lenka after all these years, the novel ended exactly where it needed to end.  Basically, I definitely recommend this novel, although one further caveat: my copy of the novel calls it "The Sophie's Choice of this generation" - I feel like that statement does the novel a disservice, not because this isn't a good novel, but because I don't think the storylines of these two novels compare or are really that parallel to each other.  I could be wrong on that, though - Sophie's Choice didn't actually leave much of an impression on me.

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