My rating: 4 of 5 stars
After a recent very long string of 2 and 3 star novels, I was so overwhelmingly happy to have read this delightful book. Historical fiction is probably my favourite genre and I'm always ecstatic to find another beautiful written novel that group.
The Lost Wife introduces us to Josef and Lenka, two young Jewish people who live in Prague during the onset of WWII. The reader quickly becomes familiar with young Lenka, the child who watched her mother become pregnant, welcomed a sister into the family, started drawing and making art pieces while still an adolescent, growing into womanhood and eventually falling in love with Josef, all the while with the backdrop of political turmoil.
Lenka is a very easy character to love. She is well written and explained by Richman, who fleshes her out into a woman who is deeply in love, Josef being the first man she is with. As the political situation grows worse, Josef and Lenka marry under the cloud of imminent German invasion as Josef plans on bringing Lenka with him to America.
Unfortunately, although Josef leaves for England to procure a passage to America for Lenka and her entire family, she remains behind in Prague, unable to leave her blood relatives behind.
The novel is written in a manner that is a bit difficult to explain in a review. Within the first chapter, Josef is an old man who is attending his grandson's wedding rehearsal. He glances across the room and an elderly woman catches his wife. He cannot believe it! Grasping her arm he says, "Lenka! Do you remember me? It's Josef...your husband..."
After that chapter, the story evolves, how two young people in love remain parted for sixty years, the circumstances that led up to such a moment, including Lenka's stay in prison camps Terezin and Auschwitz and Josef's near brush with death while on an ocean liner. Both of them marry other people (probably illegal, come to think of it) and both try to move on with their lives the best way they can.
Josef marries a quiet woman who has lost her entire family to the Holocaust. She forever deals with her shadows and they are never able to have an entirely open and honest relationship because of their haunting pasts. Lenka marries an American soldier who loves her more than she feels capable of returning.
I found myself very caught up in the plot, especially during the part about Lenka's stay in the camps. Later I was surprised to discover that several "characters" Lenka meets in the novel were actual prisoners who stayed in those camps and were involved in a small prison resistance of sorts. I don't want to go into detail about what happens in the camps, because I desperately want you to read this book!!!
For me, the most stirring part of the novel was the eventual death of Lenka's American husband. She comes to a realization that she has loved him all along and she finally opens her heart to him. The prose used is so breathtakingly moving. I must admit...I finished the novel voraciously in a Canadian Tire's auto shop waiting room and I was quietly sniffling away and avoiding the eye contact of the men around me. Yes, this book LITERALLY made me cry.
...It was there, in our bedroom with the old faded curtains and the furniture we had bought so many years before, that I told him how much I loved him, too. I told him how for fifty-two years I had been blessed to spend my life with a man who held, protected me, and gave me a daughter who was strong and wise. I told him how his love had turned a woman who only wanted to die after the war into someone who had a full and beautiful life...
There is so much more to this novel than I can articulate. It is full of beautiful vignettes and phrases that weren't overly cliched or soppy. I couldn't tear myself away from it and finished it very quickly. I highly recommend this novel, especially to someone who enjoy historical fiction. Also, make sure you read the author's note that follows the story: it is full of interesting information.
If Goodreads had a half star rating, I would give this book 4.5/5 stars. The only reason I rated it a bit lower was because I wanted to know more about what happened with Josef and Lenka once they reunited AND sometimes I found the writing a bit out of place with the time era.
But do read it. And enjoy.
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