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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Overcast
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A Book A Week: The Oriental Wife by Evelyn Toynton
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I swore I wasn't going to do this: pick up random books at the library. This was what got me into trouble last year; most of the books I found this way proved dull or annoying, and I wasted several days on each one. However, I can't seem to resist the habit, and this time it paid off.

I found Evelyn Toynton's The Oriental Wife on the new fiction shelf and gobbled it up in a few days. The story was haunting, the writing elegant and spare, the pace perfect. I have to remind myself that I have discovered many great authors through my random shelf pillaging. Just because I had a bad stretch doesn't mean it doesn't sometimes work out.

I can't find much information on Toynton on the Web, or any mainstream press reviews of The Oriental Wife. It seems to have slipped in under the radar. Toynton's writing style reminds me a lot of Anita Brookner, whose books are similarly graceful and traverse a similar landscape: the postwar years in London and Europe, and lonely people attempting (but usually failing) to make connections with others.

Louisa and Rolf are children together in Nuremberg, Germany, in the 1930s. As young adults both manage to flee to New York and are later joined by their parents -- while the war is a backdrop to this story, it's not omnipresent. Louisa and Rolf marry, but shortly afterward Louisa suffers a traumatic brain injury that drastically changes their lives. Rolf proves not to be the man we had hoped he was, and Louisa's deterioration is saddest part of the story.

Okay, this description makes the book sound like a complete downer. While that's one way to describe it, another way is that this is a serious book about the ups and downs of people's lives. You can escape from the Nazis and still end up with a brain tumor. You can start out loving someone, and then that person changes and you can't love them anymore, even if the change isn't their fault. And if the author delivers all this in a way that is measured and thoughtful and insightful, even better.


Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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