The Oriental Wife (Other Press, $15.95) by Evelyn Toynton begins in World War I-era Nuremberg, with an innocent-seeming scene of three children at play. Louisa is sweet-tempered and eager to please; her cousin Otto is as understanding as he is outgoing; and shy, self-conscious Rolf hides behind an emotionless exterior. All from well-to-do assimilated Jewish families, they are clueless as to what is obvious to the reader: their futures will prove anything but rosy, unless they escape.
With a little foresight and luck, they do — Rolf and Otto find their way to New York, while Louisa goes to finishing school in Switzerland. It is the first of several stops where she will play the thankless role of uncomprehending outsider. She falls for the snobbish brother of a British classmate and follows him to London, where he soon abandons her; she does not realize, until too late, that as a Jew she does not fit the family criteria for a wife. She then takes up with a charming but unstable journalist, whom she accompanies to New York as his assistant and fiancé — until his enchantment with her quaint-seeming manners and inability to understand his brand of socialist politics turns to abuse and rage. Will she fit in anywhere?
Reuniting with her childhood chums amid the Jewish immigrant community of New York, she would seem to have found a place of comfort at last, especially after her marriage to Rolf. But her earlier sufferings and sense of displacement are no guarantee against future ones: when a brain tumor leaves her partially paralyzed, her husband leaves her, seizing custody of their daughter. One character comments, “If we knew when we were born what lay in store for us, none of us would have the courage to see it through.” It’s a grim story, told with acuity and elegance, of a life that seems sadly destined to be always alien to its surroundings.
Canadian novelist Gabriella Goliger also explores a woman’s sense of otherness in her coming-of-age novel, Girl Unwrapped (Arsenal Pump Press, $15.95). Growing up as the daughter of Holocaust survivors in Montreal’s Jewish community in the conformist 1950s, Toni Goldblatt feels different from her classmates. First, unlike their neighbors, her German-Viennese parents are non-observant, non-Yiddish speaking, and almost indifferent to the newly founded state of Israel. Second, Toni is a tomboy — the opposite of the feminine daughter her parents had dreamed of when they named her for a beloved grandmother who perished in the death camps. As she grows into adolescence and young adulthood, Toni struggles to come to terms with her sexual attraction to women. She agonizes that she is neither a “he” nor a “she” but an unwelcome “it” in a world that has no place for such beings.
This fear is reinforced as Toni fails again and again in her attempts to fit in — in high school, where her “A” average sets her apart; at a Jewish summer camp, where she falls for a female music teacher unable to reciprocate; and in Jerusalem, where she tries to go straight, but is instead ostracized because the man whom she allowed to seduce her was Arab. It’s only as a college student at McGill that she begins to grow comfortable with her sexual identity, and develop a community in which she is no longer the outsider. Instead of being singled out as different, she has found a place in which she can revel in “space and silence and the freedom to be naked,” Gollinger writes. “She is no longer the chosen. She chooses…. She is home.” Goliger’s coming-of-age story thus doubles as a story of coming out. While the dialogue can be stilted, the emotions are real. And unlike poor Louisa in The Oriental Wife, Toni does succeed in finding a place to call her own.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and book columnist for the journal The Psychotherapy Networker.