Excerpted from The Oriental Wife by Evelyn Toynton. Copyright © 2011 by Evelyn Toynton. Excerpted by permission of Other Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. Before Otto or Louisa, Rolf emigrates to America. He seems to have a strong vision of the American Dream, and to associate it with the promise of the Western Frontier. In what ways do associated themes of liberation and adventure come to fruition in his life?
2. Discuss the power structure evidenced in Louisa’s relationship with men over the course of her adolescence and adulthood. In what ways is she powerful or powerless in relation to these young men, notably Julian, Phillip, and Rolf?
3. Dr. Seidelbaum commits a near-fatal—and debilitating—error during surgery. Is there an underlying message here about the extent to which life can or cannot be controlled?
4. In World War I, Franz, Sigmund, and Emil—Louisa’s, Rolf’s, and Otto’s fathers, respectively—received an Iron Cross for bravery. They are models of heroism. Do their progeny honor this memory? Do any of them evince heroism themselves, even if it takes a different form?
5. As a member of the refugee committee on which her husband serves, Louisa tries to minister to German Jews who are struggling to survive in New York. In one instance, she gives ribbon and a green bead necklace (p. 65), and in others, “lace doilies or French soap” (p. 109). Even if these gifts are frivolous, are Louisa’s ministrations to be discounted?
6. In your view, is Mrs. Sprague manipulative or well intentioned? What does she do to convince you of either opinion?
7. Gustav and Sophie Joseftal argue about whether Rolf is being “cruel” or “just” to Louisa once she has become partially paralyzed (p. 171). Does Rolf’s attempt to be just to her itself become a form of cruelty? Is it possible to be just and cruel at the same time? If so, how?
8. When Sophie Joseftal counsels Louisa to fire Mrs. Sprague over her controlling care of Emma, Louisa replies that “[Emma] has the right to her loves”—in other words, a right to her apparent preference for Mrs. Sprague (p. 189). How do you see this issue of “the right to love” at play within the novel?
9. What is the significance of the “Oriental wife” within the novel? In what ways do Louisa’s and Emma’s encounters with this persona reinforce or contradict one another?