In her latest novel, the Lost Wife, author Alyson Richman uses a literary sleight of hand to reveal the solution to the book’s mystery in the first four pages but somehow manages to keep the reader transfixed while she hopscotches backwards and forwards through time to unravel the incredibly improbable path to its denouement. The equivalent approach in comedy would be to successfully deliver the punch line before the joke and keep the audience engaged for the set up. No easy feat.
The story begins with an elderly widow and widower who are introduced to each other at the wedding of each of their grandchildren in the year 2000 in New York City only to discover that they had been husband and wife over 60 years earlier in what can best be described as a previous life. As unbelievable as this sounds, it was actually based on a true story. Josef and Lenka, two young Czech Jews had met, quickly fallen in love and were married just before the Nazi invasion of Prague in March 1939.
The horror of the Holocaust and World War II however, soon tragically tore them apart and circumstances led them each to believe that the other had not survived. In time, they met and married others, raised families, and managed to start over… but each secretly kept the memory of their previous lives very much alive.
The Lost Wife is a love story, brilliantly painted on the canvas of history. In the novel Lenka is an artist, but it is Richman’s talented literary brush strokes and attention to descriptive detail that depict the scenes in great depth so the reader is viscerally connected.
“I can smell the scent of spiced wafting from delicate cups on a cold January night. Outside, the tall windows of our apartment are covered in frost, but inside it is warm as toast. Long fingers of orange candlelight flicker across the faces of men and women who have crowded into the parlor to hear a string quartet Father has invited to play for the evening…And me peering from my bedroom, a voyeur to their glamour and ease.”
Be forewarned however – with its graphic and detailed descriptions of the Holocaust told in the first person, The Lost Wife is no picnic. We watch as the Nazis and their sympathizers transform Prague practically overnight. We’re aboard the cattle car transporting Lenka and her family to the Czech concentration camp Terezin where the family is separated and eventually are sent to Auschwitz.
But as the gut wrenching and unthinkable horrors of the Nazis unfold, Richman manages to juxtapose the inspiring stories of resistance, hope and the bonds of family. Without many options available to them, artists, musicians, and actors all managed to continue to create and perform their art to maintain a shred of humanity within the death camps. Lenka finds a way to surreptitiously use her skills as an artist to chronicle for posterity life within Terezin – this small act of defiance gives her strength to go on and eventually serves as a way to connect with her son many years later to help explain the part of her life she has been unable to talk about for 50 years.
[Art from Terezin copied from: http://www.holocaustawarenessmuseum.org/node/331]