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