The Oriental Wife

Other Press  2011

This is a full bodied, complex novel about a consequence of the Holocaust known as “survivor’s guilt.” It is the story of Louisa, Otto, and Rolf, childhood friends, who escape the actual horrors, but not the trauma. We journey with Louisa from Nuremberg to London, and then to a reunion with the men in New York. We are with them from childhood to old age, through assimilation, marriage, sweet moments, and misfortune. We know their families, their lovers, their friends, and their neighbors. We cheer them on and then shake our heads in disbelief over events and decisions.

Early in the story Louisa, while at her safe boarding school in Switzerland, has a discussion with a Japanese student who dreams of marrying a Westerner but knows that it is impossible. The student might live in Europe now but understands her reality, “Yes, yes, I can live there for the time being, but even so, my husband will expect me to be an Oriental wife, always meek, docile, my eyes cast down. Never making my own destiny.” This, ironically, becomes the defining statement of Louisa’s life.

At every turn there are many things to consider. Why should those who survived Hitler suffer more? The challenge of starting over in a new country is enormous. Who perseveres, who keeps fighting, and who succumbs? And, perhaps most of all, no matter where we come from, what control do we have over our destiny?

Discussion Questions

from Other Press

1. Before Otto or Louisa, Rolf emigrates to America. He seems to have a strong vision of the American Dream, and to associate it with the promise of the Western Frontier. In what ways do associated themes of liberation and adventure come to fruition in his life?

 2. Discuss the power structure evidenced in Louisa’s relationship with men over the course of her adolescence and adulthood. In what ways is she powerful or powerless in relation to these young men, notably Julian, Phillip, and Rolf?

 3. Dr. Seidelbaum commits a near-fatal—and debilitating—error during surgery. Is there an underlying message here about the extent to which life can or cannot be controlled?

4. In World War I, Franz, Sigmund, and Emil—Louisa’s, Rolf’s, and Otto’s fathers, respectively—received an Iron Cross for bravery. They are models of heroism. Do their progeny honor this memory? Do any of them evince heroism themselves, even if it takes a different form?

5. As a member of the refugee committee on which her husband serves, Louisa tries to minister to German Jews who are struggling to survive in New York. In one instance, she gives ribbon and a green bead necklace (p. 65), and in others, “lace doilies or French soap” (p. 109). Even if these gifts are frivolous, are Louisa’s ministrations to be discounted?

 6. In your view, is Mrs. Sprague manipulative or well intentioned? What does she do to convince you of either opinion?

7. Gustav and Sophie Joseftal argue about whether Rolf is being “cruel” or “just” to Louisa once she has become partially paralyzed (p. 171). Does Rolf’s attempt to be just to her itself become a form of cruelty? Is it possible to be just and cruel at the same time? If so, how?

 8. When Sophie Joseftal counsels Louisa to fire Mrs. Sprague over her controlling care of Emma, Louisa replies that “[Emma] has the right to her loves”—in other words, a right to her apparent preference for Mrs. Sprague (p. 189). How do you see this issue of “the right to love” at play within the novel?

 9. What is the significance of the “Oriental wife” within the novel? In what ways do Louisa’s and Emma’s encounters with this persona reinforce or contradict one another?

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