The Oriental Wife
A Novel
Evelyn Toynton
(Other Books)
Lovely young Louisa gets out of Nazi Germany just before Kristallnacht --- being sent off to preparatory school in Switzerland, then on to England, ending up in America. She gets dandled by English playboys and 1930s boutique Communists, marries her childhood playmate Rolf (he has also escaped to America). They settle in New York City.

While still young and beautiful and pregnant, she develops a brain tumor and is operated on in New York by Dr. Seidelbaum, who tells her husband that

    the tumor had extended farther into the ganglia than he'd thought. He had had to cut into the gray matter. In ridding her of it certain nerves had been severed in her brain.

After that it's curtains for Louisa, at least for living any kind of happy life. Her daughter Emma is born, but since Louisa cannot use one arm, loses her balance, forgets things, and has "a lopsided mouth," the baby's mothering is taken over by a Mrs. Sprague.

In fact, everything is taken over by Mrs. Sprague (the baby cries if she is not in her arms.) As for Louisa, "She ought to be put away," Mrs. Sprague whispers to a family friend. "That's the truth of it. Better for her and everyone else."

§   §   §

From being a rather lively and involving tale of Louisa's life, The Oriental Wife soon turns into a peckish soap opera. Louisa gets stuck away in a home for hopeless invalids, and withers away like a dying rose lodged in the pages of a tattered book. Rolf abandons her to marry Connie out in the wasteland of Connecticut, but he gets his: not only won't Connie stop nagging and berating him, he comes down with cancer. Chemo doesn't work, his leg is amputated, the disease returns ... and, finally, "in the night, when he couldn't sleep, he seemed to smell the rot in his body; sometimes the stench made him drag himself out of bed to open a window."

Stink is universal. When daughter Emma comes to take Louisa out to the park, even the plants turn smelly. Emma goes off to look at the flowers, but they are "mangy daffodils, their leaves jagged where something had eaten away at them."

The Oriental Wife comes interlaced with occasional bits of philosophy on the meaningless of it all: "And where is to be the end of it? When the dead come back, when the suffering ends, when everything is as it should be in the world," sighs Sophia, one of Emma's aunts. Even the cars and the hotels get involved:

    It was more as though some final, irrefutable knowledge had been visited on her, of the bleakness that lay at the bottom of everything. Rolf was as remote to her as the traffic noises outside her window, as the fat waitress in the hotel coffee shop.

Louisa, was, I guess, the star of Oriental Wife, and was quite the bon vivant until that dratted tumor popped up. She then turns into just another nattering cripple, twisted up in her chair. Her old friend Otto comes to town, and gets on a tear, one that one should never use with someone in her shoes: "Look at her!" Otto cried ... "Isn't she wonderful?"

    "Stop it, Otto," Louisa said, her voice rising.

    "But you are, you're wonderful."

    "You're embarrassing Rolf."

    "Then damn Rolf."

    "Oh, no," she said, "you mustn't say that, you can't damn Rolf. Rolf is ... he's the model citizen. And I, you see, I'm no earthly use to the state. To nation-building."

§   §   §

Maybe it's heresy, or maybe it's just me, but the only character that stands out in this whole pile of rubble is that damnable, ever-encroaching, oppressive, self-aggrandizing, take-it-all-over character, Mrs. Sprague. And she's a dilly: the universal Nurse Ratched lording it over us poor invalids.

Her stealth --- allowing her to worm her way into the lives and misfortunes of Rolf and Louisa and Emma --- is lovingly pictured. Rolf comes home from a business trip to Oregon. "It seemed to him, struggling out of sleep, that his love for her [Louisa] was intact inside him, only walled away waiting to be reclaimed. The optimism did not last through his first evening at home."

    There was a chicken roasting in the oven, courtesy of Mrs. Sprague. The Sunday papers were waiting for him --- Mrs. Sprague went very far in her solicitude. She had put on lipstick for the occasion, and a red necklace. "Get away with you now," she said, thrusting out her hand, when he complimented her.

"Louisa, sitting opposite in her zippered housedress, choked on her very first mouthful of chicken, her eyes bulging. Mrs. Sprague jumped up nimbly and handed her a glass of water. 'You must be careful, dear. I thought I'd cut that meat up small enough for you, but you let me know if you want it smaller.'"

At this point in the proceedings, I would like to suggest that the American Association of People with Disabilities, the International Sporting Wheelies and Disabled Association, Disabled American Veterans, Friends and Members of the Disabled Foundation, the National Disability Authority, the National Stroke Victim Center, the American Paraplegics Union, and the World Amputee Association, along with any other like-minded groups band together to picket the publishers and the author of this bomb, wherever she may be hiding out, for cobbling together a once-lovely character named Louisa now humped over in the darkness of her lonely sitting-room. This treatment of the life and times of those of us who have had some disabling operation, disease or accident is a scandal.

It is bad enough for us to have to put up with our day-to-day (sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes horrible), but to have Toynton give us only two options --- be pitiful, be bitter --- should earn her a round of boos, catcalls, and thumbs-down from those of us who have managed to make something lively and hopeful from whatever it is that the gods have doled out to us.

For those of you planning to have a tumor anytime in the near future, don't --- lest Ms. Toynton glom onto you and decide to write another wretched novel about you and your pitiable state, going so far as to dig up yet another Mrs Sprague to torture you when you are only trying to get on with your life.

An Oriental wife, by-the-bye, is defined early on in this turkey as one who is "Always meek, docile, my eyes cast down. Never making my own destiny."

--- L. W. Milam
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