During the last moments of calm in prewar Prague, Lenka, a young art student, and Josef, who is studying medicine, fall in love. With the promise of a better future, they marry--only to have their dreams shattered by the imminent Nazi invasion. Like so many others, they are torn apart by the currents of war.
After the war, each is the only surviving member of their families. And they each have good reason to believe that the other has perished. They both end up in New York, marry, and have families. And they each end up losing their spouse. The book actually opens in 2000, as Josef is dressing to attend the rehearsal dinner for the wedding of his beloved grandson. He has met the bride-to-be, but not her family. When he is introduced to the bride's grandmother, he immediately recognizes her as his dear Lenka.
Author Alyson Richman
And then the book begins. It toggles between Prague and New York in the 1940's and the present. The Lost Wife is based on a supposedly true story, and it is a powerful tale. It speaks particularly to the amazing capacity of people to survive and thrive despite witnessing unimaginable heartbreak and horror.
It is often difficult to read about the tragedies of World War II, but it helps that The Lost Wife starts at the end of the story, so we know that at least there is a happy ending. I recommend this book very highly.
Alyson Richman has written a story the will capture your heart and allows you to feel the love between Lenka and Josef as well as their pain and loss.
The novel opens in the present, at a wedding, Josef recognizes the grandmother of the bride as his long lost wife who he thought had died in a concentration camp during the war. Amazingly, Josef is the grandfather of the groom and they had never met previously. Lenka believed Josef and his entire family had drowned on their way to America to secure a better, safer life with the plan to get Lenka and her family out of Prague. After failing to obtain enough visas to get both families out, Lenka refused to go with her husband and leave her mother, father and sister behind.
Both Lenka and Josef endured great loss. Lenka suffered great hardship, starvation and cruelty. She experienced anti-semitisim to the point where she wanted to be invisible and disappear. She was forced to live in the Nazi Ghetto Terezin in squalor, in filth, and in the most unsanitary of living conditions.
Josef had to overcome great personal loss. He was a shell of his former self. He moved forward in life, irrevocably broken, and always searching for Lenka.
The story is told from both Lenka's and Josef's perspectives. You find out about each of their stories from their first-hand accounts. The short chapters move the story along smoothly and give the reader a brief respite from the horrors that they faced.
Even during such incredible tragedy, inspiring characters emerged, friendships were made and relationships were forged.
The weakest part of the book was the ending. The reader knows the ending from the very first pages. I wanted more time with these characters once they reunited. The Author's Note at the very end of the novel provides interesting insight into the story.
A tragic parting of lovers sets the desolate, desperate tone in Lenka and Joseph's individual tales as they each relearn to live during the war; Joseph, struggling to survive without Lenka, and Lenka, struggling just to survive. The book is composed of a beautiful back-and-forth exchange of lives that continued in the aftermath of this separation: the suffering, the dullness, the grayness, the hunger, the emptying. The Lost Wife isn't so much about romance, as it is about love—about lovers who once went wholly, completely right—that withstands the test of time and the brutality that is life.
Lenka is strong and a stubborn character, but I felt way too detached from her. She is the embodiment of how powerful the bonds of blood are, and very admirable in values, but I just couldn't connect with her or her choices. Through her eyes, readers glimpse at the injustices of Terezín and the horrors of Auschwitz, the compassion of a wife, and the duty of a daughter. Joseph is more relatable, but I couldn't stand his one-track mind. He's always loved Lenka, I understand, but how can a human be as static as to say he never loved anyone after her—not even his second wife? Human minds are more complex and open than that, in my opinion; I wish his life after Lenka had been portrayed more colorfully because that would have mystified—totally eternalized—their reunion.
This reunion is what magically brings these interwoven stories full circle. The glimpse of a smooth, white neck. The recollection of those strong, sturdy hands. The familiar glint in the eye. That are all it take for the two lovers to recognize each other—sixty years and several lifetimes after being wrenched apart.
Tastefully and delicately crafted with Alyson Richman's golden words and brimming with historical facets of the prevalent anti-Semitism throughout WWII-era Europe that oughtn't be remembered, but deserves to be exposed, The Lost Wife relays so much significance. Among the penetrating insights, include the sanctuary and solace of art, and of course, music; the danger of propaganda and how even a motherland will go to far lengths to deceive; and the ultimate triumph of a survivor: their story.
Pros: Real, raw characters // Lyrical, moving prose // Gorgeous and scary depiction of life during wartime // At times graphic, at others, tender—both frightening and redolent // Conveys the beauty of memory // Heartwarming true love // Reunion aspect is astonishing // Memories are sensual, lethargic, and dreamy
Cons: Lenka and Joseph are each a bit off... I couldn't sympathize with them completely
Verdict: Eloquent in tone and stirring in message, The Lost Wife is a Holocaust novel with sentiments on family, love, and survival. Sophie's Choice meets Atonement in Richman's exquisite story about impossible lovers—the most perfect of lovers. It is at once haunting and elegant, symbolic and graceful, and in the end, is the kind of book that'll make your heart clench and your breath shudder.
8 out of 10 hearts (4 stars): An engaging read; highly recommended.
Source: Complimentary copy provided by publisher, via Romancing the Book, in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you both!!)
The author is very descriptive and thought provoking. I was fascinated to learn more about the relocation camp Terezin. I had heard a little about this ghetto over the years, but did not know much. The writing was very descriptive – sight, sounds and smells all seemed very real.
Over all, I loved this book, though it definitely left me a little sad.
I kept wondering why exactly I disliked it so much. At first I thought that its setting in the Terezin Ghetto was too stark a venue for what was basically a romantic novel, but
The author has done her homework, to be sure. The Terezin concentration camp was unusual in that it was portrayed as a model "resettlement" community. It wasn't an extermination camp, but any semblance of normalcy was pure propaganda. Thus, those prisoners who weren't immediately shipped off to the death camps had a tenuous chance at a sort of life. They were allowed to organize themselves in certain respects, such as the author has carefully described: there was music, there were plays, there was a sort of school for the children. There was also terrible privation: hunger, disease, uncertainty, terror.
But in this story, despite the recitation of these conditions, those harsh edges get blurred in a way that makes me very uncomfortable. Here's a passage from Lenka's account. It is a minor observation by her, but one that exemplifies my objections. It is late 1943 in Terezin. She has informed us a few pages earlier that the camp has grown extremely crowded (58,000 in a site that before the war had been designed as barracks for 7,000). She and a fellow inmate with whom she works as an artist are talking.
"We are sitting on the same bench we always sit on, but now the air is pregnant with fall. I can detect the wind cooling, and smell the perfume of drying leaves. The red, dry earth is a dusty veil on my shoes."
Wait: what? "Pregnant with fall"? And then it's going to give birth to winter? Fall doesn't get pregnant. This is like a needle scraping on a record. "I can detect the wind cooling...." Well, that often happens when it gets cold. "...and smell the perfume of drying leaves...." Well, I suspect that unlike most concentration camps, there might have still been trees inside the Terezin confines, although one would guess they'd have been burned for fuel the previous winter. But whatever: there are leaves. In a place crowded by tens of thousands of frightened, desperate prisoners, many of whom suffer from typhus, dysentery, tuberculosis, and never-ending infestations of fleas and lice... but the leaves are perfume-y, and you can discern that scent amid the other perfume-y aromas of a concentration camp? Please.
I suspect that the author was so moved by the struggle to survive at Terezin, and not only survive, but seek cultural sustenance - and sometimes to achieve it - that she is forcing that admirable imagery to the detriment of both her story and the historical record. And it clashes. The book feels tone-deaf throughout.
In November of 1944, her parents are scheduled for transport to Auschwitz. (..."[A] name I wasn't familiar with" - in November of 1944? Unlikely.) She insists on signing herself up for transport as well. Her father, sick and skeletal, objects but she insists they have to stick together, a camp's a camp. They arrive at Auschwitz. "I looked at the steel-gray sky and saw chimneys blowing black smoke. 'That must be where we'll work', I thought. Factories for the German war effort. How wrong I was." No sh*t. If you can smell the perfume of drying leaves in Terezin, you can damn well smell the stench of burning bodies at Auschwitz.
The themes explored in this novel surprised me. I expected the Holocaust stuff: the struggle for survival, families being torn apart, trying to keep one’s humanity in such trying circumstances, and the horrific pain any Holocaust novel worth its salt contains. I expected the love story torn apart by war; that was a treat.
Yet, I wasn’t expecting the intriguing exploration of how survivors dealt with re-building families they had lost and the guilt that resulted from having lived. Seeing the differences in how Josef and Amalia dealt with the respective pains and pasts kept me devouring the pages from their sections at an incredible speed.
The attention to detail the author paid to her historical research made this history lover happy as all get out. The reader gets a very deep look at the early days of Nazi occupation, the ever increasing hardship faced the Jewish population of Prague, and the horrors of the camps. I especially enjoyed learning how art and music made such a difference in the lives of Terezin’s inhabitants and how it became a vehicle to resistance. To learn it was all true was amazing.
The author also uses the brutality that was present in the Holocaust with restraint. Yes, it’s there (the image of the boy with the tractor in Terezin and Marta’s fate are prime examples of how brutality was utilized), but the author balances it out with the hope that the art brings in the lives of the Terezin inhabitants.
This novel was a fantastic introduction to this author. I’ll definitely be looking into more of her works soon. The themes explored and the emotional resonance that unfolded kept me spellbound from page one. I was also able to appreciate the amount of work the author put into her research. I appreciated the restraint and the balance she utilized in the more horrific aspects of her chosen material. This is a historical fiction novel I highly recommend to readers of Holocaust fiction; it will leave you emotionally moved and filled with retrospection at the same time.