A few days ago I had the privilege and pleasure to interview author Alyson Richman. Ms. Richman and I met by chance last month on twitter when I announced that this month’s book club read would be The Lost Wife. I was both surprised and elated to hear from her and even more tickled when she agreed to a podcast interview.
It’s always a thrill to read a good book. But it’s even more thrilling to be able to sit with an author and really dissect how they developed their characters, gave flesh to the plot and in the end, painted a beautiful canvas filled with word pictures bound up in a book. We experienced a couple of technical difficulties, yet this is a really fun and informative interview. And if you haven’t read The Lost Wife, I highly recommend it!
I love historical novels and The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman is one of the more engaging historical novels that I have read in a while. The Lost Wife tells the story of Lenka Maizel Kohn and Josef Kohn, a young Czechoslovakian couple who loved and were lost to one another during the Holocaust.
The story opens as it ends, with 81 year old Lenka and 85 year old Josef attending the wedding of their grandchildren-Lenka’s granddaughter to Josef’s grandson. The couple had been separated during the Holocaust and each believed that the other had perished. Yet, some 60 years later, they are brought together by an eerie twist of fate for what one may consider a final chance at endless love.
As you can see I am a hopeless romantic and devour stories that show “love conquering all” as Lenka and Josef’s love apparently does (I read the bulk of this book on a plane!). But this story is rich in history and narrative and is as much about the atrocities of the Holocaust and the strength of the human will and spirit as it is about Lenka’s and Josef’s love. In all honesty, we only see Lenka and Josef together for a very short portion of the story. The bulk of the story chronicles how European Jews enjoyed lives of prosperity at the beginning of the 20th century, endured horrendous abuse, suffering and slaying during World War II, and how they moved forward-often alone, orphaned, destitute and without a worldly good after the war to once again prosper.
I will say at the onset, if you are Jewish and have family members that experienced the atrocities of the European Holocaust, this will be a difficult read. Ms. Richman does an excellent job of giving explicit details of the events of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s in Europe, having used real people as models for her characters. We watch with an inside view how affluent Jewish families went from lives of luxury to lives that are quite frankly hard to believe. I read each level of degradation in knowledge of history, but was completely aghast as I realized that this was in no way fiction, these events actually happened; the assumption of Jewish riches by the Nazis, the labeling, imprisoning and subsequent marking of the Jewish people in much the way that farmers and ranchers mark their animals, and the final senseless and heartless murders of millions of people for no other reason than their faith and heritage. Ms. Richman’s descriptions of people’s waning facial features, their hearts beating in terror, the brutal beatings and brave acts of defiance are palpable. Her descriptions of the surroundings is truly that of an artist. And while I really appreciated this description and feel that it provides the depth of character and story, it is also this attention to detail and description that makes this book hard to read because of the knowledge that this isn’t merely poetic license, but well thought out descriptions of reality at one time in our history.
While overall I liked and recommend this book, my one complaint is that we are left with a lot of unknowns. We learn quite a bit about Josef’s life once he left Czechoslovakia leading up to his grandson’s marriage to Lenka’s granddaughter, but we know virtually nothing about Lenka’s life after the war. We see her rescued from Auschwitz by an American Jewish GI to whom she is subsequently married. But other than the fact that we learn that she moved to New York with her husband, assumes an American name and has a daughter and a granddaughter, we know nothing of her life between the ages of 29 and 81. Did she suffer from depression? Did she ever resume her art in any way, shape or form? How did she learn English? What was her life like??
Likewise, I would have loved to have had a few teasers throughout the story of Josef and Lenka passing eachother in New york. At one point near the end of the story, Josef says that at times he felt that he had passed her on the subway, in the Supermarket or in and about town. It would have made for interesting drama to have had them pass eachother once or twice over the course of those 60 years.
Finally, I really would have liked a chapter or two on what happened after the meeting at the wedding. Lenka and Josef were both widowed, so did they get remarried? Did they ever tell their families about their love and marriage? How does Josef react when Lenka tells him that she miscarried their child? Do they share their respective losses? Does Lenka tell Josef how she, her family and countless other Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazi’s or do they simply share their suffering in an unspoken way, choosing instead to focus their energy and remaining time together on being together? I feel that Ms. Richman had such great character and plot development throughout the story, yet kind of left us hanging at the end, as if she thought, “350 pages is enough (or perhaps her editor or publisher had said so!) so she simply wound up the story as quickly as possible.”
Overall, I recommend this book, especially for those who like historical novels and stories of love conquering all. But again, if the Holocaust is troubling to you or a part of your history, this may be a difficult-albeit engaging-read.