Over the past several weeks, my family and I have been wrapped up in the process of moving across the Atlantic. The details have been tremendous, but all have worked out so smoothly they’ve unfolded like stepping stones, one tiny step at a time. And while I’m wrapped up in transition and helping my kids to get settled and engaged in their new school in Ohio, I am taking time to think and understand the vast changes we’re going through. We already miss our friends in Prague, but are thrilled to be back home in the United States. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be blogging about the move. But for now, I’m posting part of a piece I’ve written for today at Great New Books, on one of my recent favorite books. I’m closing comments here, but I hope you’ll join us at Great New Books for the rest of the post and discussion. Thanks!
In the best book covers, a reader can sense the story held inside the pages even without opening the book at all. THE LOST WIFE by Alyson Richman is one novel I’ve recently read that I fell in love with, not only for the cover art (which shows a couple kissing on Prague’s famed Charles Bridge), but with the words, the story, and the pull I felt while reading to immerse myself in every word all the way to the end.
In the very first pages of The Lost Wife, in combination with the cover and the evocative title, the reader learns that a husband and wife have been passionately in love, but then tragically separated by war. The story begins in current day New York City at a wedding where one of the main characters, Josef, discovers someone he never even dreamed to meet again, who he recognizes by “the shadow of something dark blue beneath the transparent material of her sleeve that caused shivers to run through his old veins.” That woman is his wife, Lenka.
The rest of the book fills in the empty space of story, in fluid, alternating viewpoints from Josef to Lenka, of how they met and fell deeply in love, married, and were torn apart by the footsteps of Nazi soldiers marching through the cobblestone streets of Prague. In alternating timeframes of current day and 1940s Europe, the reader falls into an absorbing tale of enduring love and the incredible resilience of hope and the ability of memory to draw us through the hardest of times.
Over the past few years I have read several books set during the Holocaust and World War II Europe. Because of the subject matter, each has been challenging to read, emotionally and historically. But The Lost Wife, to me, reached much further than the atrocities the protagonist suffered, and to another subject altogether. The Lost Wife is a love story from beginning to end, and even more, it shines a bright light on art as a means to survive even the worst of circumstances.
Richman draws two vivid characters in Lenka and Josef. While reading, I could feel the weight of their love while they were in pre-Occupation Prague, and even more, sense that same love as it pulled and tugged through their circumstances after they were pulled apart. Not only did I see Lenka’s curls in decadent pre-War Prague, but could hear her rich voice and artist’s perspective in everything she said. An example (page 36): “I’ve often wondered if it is impossible to dress purely for your own indulgence and not in the hope of catching a man’s eye. Some women love the feel of silk in their own hand, the weight of velvet on their skin. I think my mother was like that. She always told us there were two types of women. Those who are lit from the outside and those who are lit from within. The first needs the shimmer of a diamond to make her sparkle, but for the other, her beauty is illuminated through the sheer light of her soul.”
As well as rich characters, Richman writes the settings so real it’s as if the reader is walking right beside the characters, or close enough to be in their actual shoes. I have walked the cobblestones of Prague for the past four years (living in Prague as an expat), and spent a day inside the Ghetto of Nazi concentration camp Terezin, and the novel reads just as the settings feel and smell and look if the reader were there in real life. For a walk through history-rich Prague and along its gentle Vltava River, to see the delicate Bohemian crystal and the idyllic land of Czechoslovakia before War and Communism seized it, and to experience the suffering of those who survived the Nazi camps, The Lost Wife is a must read.
For more about my experience at Terezin, click here. To see more posts about Prague, click here. And for more and to engage with us in comments and discussion, click here for our book recommendation site at Great New Books … Thanks! -Jennifer