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The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman (2011)



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3.5 Stars

I really really enjoyed this book but.. for me, the ending was a real let down. I know the author was probably going for poignant emotionalism with the understated gesture of recognition and acknowledgement but, frankly, it just pissed me off. I mean, if nothing else I'd like to know how the kids react to the revelation of their grandparents long lost spouse/love of their life.

Also Lenka's whole refusal to escape to safety struck me as either completely unrealistic or completely stupid. I mean really? "No! I won't take myself to safety where I might actually be of some help to my beloved family. I would much rather stay and suffer and watch them suffer and die instead."... Right. If that's not bad enough she then decides it's not enough that her parents are going off to be gased at Auswitz. Oh no not for miss "we must stick (read die) together". No. Not only does she decide she has to sign up for Auswitz but that her little sister deserves to die with her family rather then survive alone as well. I really hate to say this about a (albeit fictitious) holocaust survivor but what a stupid, idealistic, selfish bitch. ( )
  Charli30902 | Jan 5, 2017 |
This has been the best Goodreads giveaway book I've gotten! Even though the subject material is solemn the book's narrative flows so easily that it's very hard to put the book down. Maybe it's easy to read because the first chapter lets you know that this book is going to end happily. This is not what you usually expect from a holocaust story.
( )
  Iambookish | Dec 14, 2016 |
I did really like learning a new story about World War II. ( )
  mamashepp | Mar 29, 2016 |
I did really like learning a new story about World War II. ( )
  mamashepp | Mar 29, 2016 |
Wowsers… If you want an emotional look at the Holocaust and its effect on survivors, look no further than this novel. My first work by this author, I found myself sucked in by the emotional depth of both sets of scenes, occupied Europe and modern day New York. The authors way of writing lets her readers get to know the characters on a very personal level; as a consequence, what the characters are going through felt very immediate.

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. ( )
  Sarah_Gruwell | Jan 13, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 042524413X, Paperback)

A Q&A with best-selling author John Lescroart and Alyson Richman about The Lost Wife

Lescroart: Say a few words about your extraordinary Prologue to this book and how it initiated the creative process of the novel.

Richman: I had been hoping to write a novel where I could explore an artist’s experience during WWII and the Holocaust. So I started to do research about how certain real life artists were still able to create, even under these horrific and dangerous circumstances. But I didn’t know how I was going to frame the novel. Then one day I was getting my hair cut at a local salon, and I overheard the stylist next to me telling a story he had recently heard from another client. It was about a woman who had recently attended a wedding where the bride’s grandmother and the groom’s grandfather had not met previously. At the rehearsal dinner the night before, the groom’s grandfather insisted he knew the bride’s grandmother “from somewhere.” At the end of the evening, still convinced that he recognized her (despite her denials), he asked her to roll up her sleeve. There the six-number tattoo from Auschwitz was inked into her skin. He looked at her again, this time more closely. Studying her face one more time, he said: “You were my wife.”

When I heard that story, I knew I had the beginning of my novel! I would begin and end it at the wedding scene, but invent this couple’s journey in between: how they fell in love in romantic pre-war Prague, but then became separated as the Germans invaded, and later how they each begin new lives in America. I made Lenka--the “lost wife” of the book’s title--a young art student at the beginning of the war, so I could weave in my historical research about various artists who had survived Terezin and Auschwitz by using their artistic skills. It was my hope that my readers would learn and appreciate the history of these artists, while also becoming swept away into Josef and Lenka’s love story that I created.

Lescroart: I have rarely come across a novel where the visual arts have played such an important role, in both the personal and political realm. What is your own background, if any, in visual art? To what extent did your creation of Lenka the artist help you deal with the themes in the book?

Richman: I am the daughter of an abstract oil painter and a painter myself. I actually went to college thinking I was going to major in studio art, but then fell in love with art history. What I love about it was uncovering the story within the painting. My mother taught me, early on in my childhood, the “gift of seeing.” If you’re going to paint, you need to look at the clues of your subject, the traces of life--whether it’s the bruise on a pear or a wrinkle on a face. I try to bring that to my writing and to also incorporate texture and color into my words, so that the reader has a full, sensory experience.

To that end, the reader will experience a marked change in Lenka as the novel progresses. She starts off as a naïve, young art student, who is often more of an observer than a participant. Then becomes an artist willing to steal supplies for the young children in Terezin and anxious to become part of a secret resistance of artists trying to get their art work to the outside world. By the end of the war, she has wholly changed – both as a stronger woman and as a more risk-taking artist.

Lescroart: Josef and Lenka both go on to have lengthy married lives to other people after the war ends. Josef, particularly, builds a life with Amalia that is just heart-rending. How did you envision these people coming together? What kept them together? How was Lenka’s marriage similar, if at all, to Josef’s, and what does your answer say about the nature of marriage itself?

Richman: Many people who have read this novel have said that they’ve never read a book where there are so many different types of love depicted. There a “first love” between the young Lenka and Josef; the love between a parent and child, as well as between sisters; then the love among all the friends Lenka makes in the Terezin ghetto; and finally the loves that both Josef and Lenka experience within their second marriages later in their lives.

The first love between Josef and Lenka is the most beautiful, the most romantic, but I think it’s the subtler shades of love within their respective second marriages that are more complex and perhaps more interesting. On the surface, Josef’s and Amalia’s appears to be loveless. Lifeless. But it is a marriage that exists from a shared pact of silence and respect for their mutual pasts and survivor’s guilt over their lost families. I wanted to create Amalia as an almost “living ghost” because I wanted to explore how Josef would react: his heart is still attached to Lenka, who is truly a ghost of his past, but who still lives deeply within his memory.

Lenka’s post-war marriage to Carl is perhaps the biggest surprise to the reader. At the end of their lengthy marriage, they share a deep love that has transformed over time, built on family and her gratitude for his saving her after the war. But it is a very different kind of love compared to the one Lenka experienced as a young girl with Josef.

Lescroart: The central conceit of this book, and indeed the genesis of the title, strongly relies on the reader’s suspension of disbelief that these two lovers could not only have lost track of one another, but have entirely given up on each other’s survival. In this high wire act, you were completely successful, and I was left in awe by the technical virtuosity of your plotting. Can you describe your plotting/outlining process and some of the problems--both this and others--you found most difficult to solve?

Richman: Well, that’s a very good question. I knew I wanted to involve the Nazi’s sinking of the S.S. Athenia in 1939 into the novel. So I interviewed a survivor of that ship, whose family had mistakenly believed that their father had drowned but then later learned he had in fact survived. So I knew there was, in actuality, a great deal of confusion with casualty reports at that time. Then there is the issue of how inundated the Red Cross was right after the war, with so many refugees and other people trying to locate their loved ones but the information was coming so slowly over from Europe. One has to remember there was no computers or internet at that time.

But truly, the success of the novel’s ringing true to me has to do with the exploration of memory and just how powerful it is. Josef, who was safe here during the war, clings to the memory of Lenka in order to survive, while Lenka must suppress hers of him in order to survive her far more physically traumatic experiences in Terezin and Auschwitz.

Lescroart: You portray life in the Czechoslovakian prison camp of Terezin as horrible of course, yet quite different--more filled with intrigue, politics, and passion--than most other books that deal with the Holocaust. How did this pivotal landscape evolve in your consciousness as you were creating this book?

Richman: I was lucky enough to be able to visit the Czech Republic and meet with survivors of Terezin, some of whom had been artists in the Technical Department there and knew many of the real-life characters depicted in the book. Their testimony really enhanced my writing of the novel and breathed life into it that would have been impossible without hearing about their actual experiences. When you think of the Holocaust, you immediately and rightfully imagine those haunting images of tragedy and death. But through my research, I learned another aspect--the ability of the human spirit to defy great odds just to live--as well as to still be able to love and to create, even under great duress. I remember listening to one survivor of Terezin who said: “We thought we were going to die… so what choice did we have. We still wanted to love and laugh. We still wanted to live.”

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:41 -0400)

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.… (more)

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