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REVIEW: The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman

Dear Ms. Richman,

The saying that truth is stranger than fiction certainly applies here. If I had not read the “Author’s Notes” at the end of the book, I would have finished the book thinking that you’d come up with a doozy of a plot that stretched credulity. A young man and woman who find love in 1930s Prague only to be separated by the vicissitudes of war who then, believing the other dead, remarry only to find each other decades and an ocean away? This is something I would expect from a tear jerker Hollywood movie. There are enough RL people woven into the narrative to carry the part of the plot you’ve constructed and this is where the book does best. However, I found myself shortchanged in the romance department.

The early part of the book in pre-war Prague show the beauty of the city, the privileged world in which Lenka and Josef were born and how they might have lived and grown old if not for what was to come. I could see the spacious apartments, the elegance of their lives, the tight bonds of family which held them together. The growing menace slowly creeps up on them and their decision to marry due to their love and as a way to try and emigrate before it’s too late make sense. Thinking they still have time, Lenka decides to stay in Prague with her family and wait for Josef to try and get them all sponsored. Had I been Lenka’s parents, I would have wanted to shake her too. Things deteriorate and soon Lenka, her sister Marta and their parents are fighting to survive in the increasingly horrible conditions of the Terezin camp. Until worse befalls them. Meanwhile, Josef frantically tries to contact Lenka before and after the war, unaware that she thinks him dead.

“The Lost Wife” worked better for me as an account of how Lenka’s artistic talents kept her alive in the Terezin camp and how after the war, the survivors struggled emotionally with the loss of their loved ones as they built new lives. But I never felt truly drawn into the characters. The book reads more like a straight forward non-fiction recounting rather than grabbing me and plunging me into what’s going on. It’s more telling instead of showing, as one reviewer at Amazon says. The telling is interesting, as I learn yet more ways in which RL people did survive the camps, but that’s not what I want from a fiction book.

I also wanted to know more about Lenka’s life after the war. You show Josef building a new life and with his wife, who also lost family in Europe, learning to get through day by day in the new normal of long term grief. But Lenka’s post war marriage is basically zipped through with most of the emphasis on her relationship with her daughter. And then, when Josef and Lenka finally find each other again – the book ends. I closed it thinking, “That’s it? This is all I get after 60 years of separation, pain and numbing grief?”

What I liked about the book I could have learned from googling Terezin (or the German name of Theresienstadt). And the romance that I would like to have gotten never materializes. Instead I found it an emotionally unengaging tale with little payoff for the grief I watched Josef and Lenka endure. C


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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. Cara Ellison
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 12:48:28

    This is in my TBR pile. I found the premise almost irresistible so your review has put a bit of a damper on my expectations. Maybe that’s a good thing, but I’m a little disappointed it isn’t the sweeping love story I thought it was.

  2. Jayne
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 13:17:55

    @Cara Ellison: The premise is what grabbed me too but in the end, that alone isn’t enough. I wanted more and it’s just not there.

  3. Danielle
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 15:08:11

    The Lost Wife is on my TBR list but your nicely rounded review gives me pause. Telling instead of showing is something that tries my patience (there are exceptions to do with style, intent, and length), and a tragic drama with an ending that lacks emotional payoff is wallbanger territory for me. That said, I am still intrigued by the storyline! What to do, what to do…

    “Thinking they still have time, Lenka decides to stay in Prague with her family and wait for Josef to try and get them all sponsored. Had I been Lenka‚Äôs parents, I would have wanted to shake her too.’

    Jewish friends of my family told us of how in their youth in the late 1930s they and friends of theirs were holidaying in Europe, travelling by car. On their return trip they decided against flying home and instead chose the land route – through Germany. They were not ignorant of what was going on there, but they were, in their own words, inexperienced and foolish, still possessing the recklessness that stems from a youthful sense of invincibility. One pales just thinking about it, but then we all look back now with our knowledge of the Holocaust and World War II – something utterly beyond the scope of imagination for those young, still untouched young women and men.

  4. Jayne
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 15:22:24

    @Danielle: I can understand youthful feelings of invincibility but the way it’s presented in the book, Lenka and her family are well aware that they need to get out. They thought they had longer than they ultimately did but the dangers of staying were apparent.

  5. Danielle
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 15:54:02

    @Jayne: Ouch, that may just tip the book off my list. It sounds like the most irritating sort of author intrusion, manipulating characters to fit the plot instead of letting the storyline develop believably from their personalities and circumstances. Thank you for the clarification.

  6. Jayne
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 16:10:51

    @Danielle: Well, let me explain what happens in the book so you can make a more informed decision. Josef has a cousin already in America who is able to sponser Josef’s family. I can’t recall how it’s phrased but maybe there was a limit on the number of people one person in the US could sponser? Anyway the cousin says he’ll agree to adding Lenka but not her parents and sister. Josef hides this from Lenka until after the wedding thinking she’ll agree to come with him and that they’ll then work from the US on getting her family out. Lenka is furious, however, and refuses to leave her family – feeling that it would be a betrayal of them and heartsick that she might never see them again. Her parents are frantic for at least one of the family to get out – the fear of parents for the survival of a child at any cost even if that cost is separation. All concerned still think that even with Lenka and her family staying, there will be time for Josef to arrange something once he and his family get to the US.

    So…here is Lenka, with a chance to get out and she doesn’t go. Families all around them are desperately trying to leave, they know it’s not safe to stay yet she does.

  7. Danielle
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 16:51:20

    @Jayne: Very much appreciated, Jayne!

  8. alyson richman
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 19:33:02

    Dear Jayne,
    Thank you so much for your review of “The Lost Wife.” I have never commented on a blog discussion about my book, but I feel it is necessary to clear up a misconception in the dialogue. Lenka’s decision to remain with her family was not written into the story in order to “fit the plot.” Nothing could be furthest from my mind. Lenka’s decision to remain was written into the story line because I believe it is part of the fabric of her character. Repeatedly, when given the choice to stay in a safer place, or to follow her family in a time of danger, Lenka remains. Every character in the novel chooses a path that will change their fate and their lives post-Holocaust. The novel is grounded on years of research of survivors of both the Holocaust and Terezin. Every survivor I interviewed said they knew they were in danger as the Nazi threat loomed, but no one could have possibly imagined death camps and crematoriums.
    I write this only to clarify. Have fun discussing the book . And as far as the ending is concerned, I bring you full circle – filling in the story of how Josef and Lenka fall in love, how they separate and how each of them survive the war. Yes, you begin where you end. And I leave it to you to imagine the next chapter in Josef and Lenka’s lives. That’s my favorite kind of ending – the one that lingers in your imagination, brimming with possibility and defying finality.

  9. Laura
    Feb 21, 2012 @ 22:23:54

    For what this is, I think I’d be more interested in reading the history than the novel. So I found the Author’s Note in the book sample (thanks, Amazon!) to see what the real names were and try to do some research, but it looks like the actual story was just overheard–no names or more info. Bummer.

  10. SAO
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 00:14:10

    My father-in-law was sponsored for America after WW2. He was a Russian, (not Jewish), a forced laborer in what was then Germany, but now is Poland, and ended up in displaced persons’ camp at the end of the war. As I understand it, the sponsoring family had to prove they could support the sponsored family, which would arrive speaking no English and having no possessions. So, from displaced persons’ camp they had chains. A family who made it onto their feet in America would sponsor another family. I think my FIL lived in displaced persons’ camp for 4 or 5 years before it was his family’s turn to be sponsored.

    In 1930, there were more than 350,000 Jews in Czechoslovakia. 2,000 or so returned to their homes after the war. Perhaps an equal number made it to America or Israel. 99% of the Jews were killed. I guess there’s no way anyone could believe that could happen.

  11. Sirius
    Feb 22, 2012 @ 10:11:51

    @alyson richman: I have not read the book, I am not sure if I will be reading the book, but I want to agree on the mindsets of at least some Jewish survivors of Holocaust, even if in slightly different circumstances. Half of my grandmother’s siblings, her parents, her nieces and nephews were killed by Natzis, they knew couple days in advance that Natzis are coming to their village in Belorussia and no, not all of them wanted to leave. They thought from what my grandmother was telling us that they would encounter the “educated” Germans of the first world war, and they would not hurt them *too* badly.
    In fact some of the younger generation had to shake them and badly and most of her older siblings and parents did not want to leave, thank goodness they had a sense to give two of my grandmother’s nieces to her (they were fifteen and fourteen at the time and my grandmother was twenty four), they put them on the trank and horses took them on the run to another end of the country, pretty much.

    So yes what I am trying to say is that at least some Jews could not even imagine the horror that was coming, despite the war blooming already. I do not see the portrayal of somebody who does not want to leave as implausible at all, although it is of course a different country, I would imagine the unwilligness to leave the family has the similar roots.

  12. deborah cunningham
    Feb 26, 2012 @ 19:42:09

    May I interject?
    READ the book. (Full disclosure-I have, and I am the Suffolk,LI co-chair of LI Reads/One Island,One Book and we have chosen this book for 2012.)
    Alyson’s lyrical writing style and copious research alone( in addition to the true,believe-it-or-not story from which the book takes flight) is worth the effort. The book isn’t a debate about aspects of the Holocaust. The decisions of the characters are similar to the decisions of real people in chaos and in danger,at the mercy of greater forces. They usually act in character and make the best decisions they can, given what they know and what they are able to do. Sometimes we choose, sometimes we are swept away.
    This book kept me out on my front porch past twilight, last summer, because I wanted to stay with Lenka. The book also should lead you to not only explore the beauty of Prague and Karlovy Vary,but also appreciate the art of the children of Terezin, and the musicians,artists,writers,draftsmen there who ultimately perished,but who still needed to create,even if in the worst of conditions, struggling to leave a legacy nonetheless.
    This was an added richness to an already rich book.
    IMO. Give it a try.

  13. Grace O'Connor
    Feb 27, 2012 @ 14:24:59

    When I got to the end of “The Lost Wife,” I was lost in my thoughts of what Josef and Lenka would share in the months or years remaining to them. War’s effects rage through generations. (Read Chang Rae Lee’s “The Surrendered.”) Josef and Lenka were haunted throughout their lives by their losses: family, friends and each other. Romance?! Unrequited love?! Bittersweet lives! As I thought about it, having read it in two large gulps, the artist-prisoners of Terezin became more and more central to the book. It was something I knew nothing about and the fact that the author had brought it to life with her research was even more compelling.

    I was heartbroken when Lenka refused to go with Josef and his family but not surprised. She was frightened but optimistic as though her great love for Josef would be enough to get them safely back together. Her love for her family was not something to be explained. Family ties are complicated. Her life with Josef was just beginning and for the rest of her life she would be left having to measure their love by the fervor of their brief marriage.

  14. Ames
    Jan 07, 2013 @ 13:35:30

    Excellent book. A must-read. Couldn’t put it down.

  15. natasha lee
    Feb 18, 2013 @ 11:20:25

    @alyson richman: @alyson richman:

    I loved the book, found it to be engaging, believable, heart-breaking, and a testimony to both the healing powers of art and of love. I disagree strongly with the other comments.

  16. Laurie Grande
    May 02, 2013 @ 19:01:30

    Just finished the book and could not put it down! Learned so much I thought I already knew about the horrors of Terezin! Knew about the children but not the musicians and artests etc. Will do more research on my own. Also willing to write my own ending. What will happen to the grandchildren whose love seems to mirror that of Lenka and Josef?
    A great read and I can’t wait to read Alyson’s other books.

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