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He closes his eyes as he kisses her again, as if he were wishing something that was now impossible.  That, instead of being in the cold outside the Dresden barracks, he had transported my mother and him to the street of their first kiss, or to our apartment with its view of the Vltava.

In the cold, I think of the story Father had told us of how when the swans were frozen and trapped in the river, the men and women of Prague cut them out to free them.  And yet not a single one, when we were all rounded up for our transport, had come to help us.

(from The Lost Wife, page 169)

The Lost Wife is a beautifully tragic love story that begins at the end.  Josef Kohn is 85 years old and attending his grandson’s wedding rehearsal dinner when he realizes the bride’s grandmother is his true love, Lenka, the woman he married just before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.  The woman he never stopped thinking about, the woman he was told perished in Auschwitz.

Alyson Richman brings readers back to prewar Prague to show how Lenka, a young art student, and Josef, a young medical student, fell in love, and how it came to be that Josef ended up in New York and Lenka ended up in the Nazi ghetto of Terezín (or in German, Theresienstadt).  The Lost Wife is beautifully told, with Josef reflecting on the life he led without Lenka, how her ghost haunted him all through his second marriage, and Lenka describing her life during the war and how the story comes full circle to her granddaughter’s wedding and her reunion with the man she remembered with passion even when she was exhausted, starving, and near death.  Richman’s prose is simply beautiful, evoking romance and passion, horror and grief, and brilliantly describing Lenka’s artistic spirit.

But in order to survive in this foreign world, I had to teach myself that love was very much like a painting.  The negative space between people was just as important as the positive space we occupy.  The air between our resting bodies, and the breath in between our conversations, were all like the white of the canvas, and the rest [of] our relationship — the laughter and the memories — were the brushstrokes applied over time.  (page 319)

I have read dozens of WWII/Holocaust novels, but until The Lost Wife, I had not read about Terezín, which was considered a model camp and touted as a city created by Hitler especially for the Jews.  All of that was a lie, of course, and Lenka watches her parents and sister waste away as they work hard and subsist on rotten-smelling soup and bread made mostly from sawdust.  Jews arrive at the ghetto in droves, and disease and lice are rampant due to overcrowding.

Lenka is lucky to have been given a job as an artist, where she paints postcards that are bought by the German people or draws expansion plans for the ghetto.  There is resistance in the form of smuggled artwork that details the truth about conditions in the ghetto, and even music and opera are used as statements against the Nazi brutality.  Richman brings to life the stories of the real artists of Terezín — their courage and ability to put the quest for truth ahead of their safety and create works of art for a higher purpose.  These men and women even smuggled art supplies to the children of the ghetto, who were given the opportunity to draw and paint their hopes and dreams and the confusing changes in their lives.  Some of this artwork is on display in museums right now.

The Lost Wife emphasizes the difficult decisions people in love are forced to make during times of war and chaos and how true love lives on even when all hope has been lost.  There are scenes of tenderness, agony, and despair, and yet because Richman begins the story at the end, there is still hope.  I didn’t want to put the book down because it was so good, but at some points, it hurt too much to continue so I had to lay it down for a bit.  I cried several times while reading The Lost Wife, but to be so affected by an author’s writing and to fall so in love with the characters are, to me, signs of a fantastic book.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Lost Wife from Berkley/Penguin for review purposes. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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