Book Review: The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler
In the wake of World War II, the world was filled with refugees, some seeking shelter, some seeking new homes, some seeking forgiveness, some seeking peace. In Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride, one determined young woman arrives in Montreal seeking a new life, and more importantly, a new self. But can a person really reinvent herself? And what happens when her old life catches up to her?
Lily Azerov arrives by train in Montreal as a mail-order bride for Sol Kramer, whose family had settled in Canada one generation earlier and is now established within the Jewish community there. But for whatever reason, Sol sees Lily at the train station and changes his mind, leaving Lily without a plan or a future until Sol’s brother Nathan steps in and marries Lily instead. Nathan is drawn to Lily’s fierceness and determination, and falls for her almost instantly. And what does Lily feel for Nathan? Is he more than just a solution to a problem?
The Imposter Bride is layered throughout with mysteries. Lily, we quickly discover, is not who she says she is. We don’t know who she was exactly, but this stranger in a strange land has picked up the name and history of another girl. The original Lily and her entire family, like so may others, lie dead in Europe, leaving no trace behind. The new Lily does not have long to hide behind her new self, as the original Lily’s cousin also lives in Montreal and is quick to sniff out the deception.
After a dramatic first chapter, in which the point of view shifts radically from character to character, so that we see events through the eyes of Lily, Nathan, Sol, and others, we learn in the second chapter that the new Lily is long gone. Lily stuck around only long enough to give birth to a baby girl, and then left suddenly one day, never to return. From this point forward, we hear parts of the story through the words of Ruth, Lily and Nathan’s daughter, who narrates a life lived amongst a large, loving family and yet with a key piece of her own identity permanently denied her.
Throughout the remainder of the story, Ruth and other family members pour out their thoughts and emotions as they recount their experiences with faux Lily as well as the paths their lives have taken after her departure. The shifting points of view are quite effective in places, as we hear, one after the other, radically different interpretations of the same set of events.
The author skillfully creates distinct voices for the characters, each easily recognizable and with his or her own story to tell. The older generation recounts their stories of losses and loves; we see Ruth growing up from early childhood through middle age; we even get brief moments of Lily’s thoughts and experiences.
Sadly, for me at least, the pieces never really gel into a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Key elements of the central mystery are left unresolved — or are finally revealed in such a brief overview that I couldn’t relate to the events at all. What happened to the original Lily? What was her connection to the faux/new Lily? Why did new Lily choose to start over in Canada, despite knowing she’d have little chance of maintaining her charade? Who, really, was new Lily before she found her new name and new life? And why did she feel that she had to leave her husband and baby girl? There are answers provided, mostly, but I found them unsatisfying and not entirely convincing.
On the positive side, The Imposter Bride is richly detailed, and the author’s language is heartfelt and lovingly crafted. Through the words of the characters, the deep sense of loss so central to the Jewish community in the wake of the Holocaust is finely portrayed, as each of the characters are impacted in different ways by the horrors and suffering of that time.
A central theme that emerges is the pain of not knowing. Many of the characters simply do not know what has become of the families they left behind in Europe. While the pain and questioning may become less acute over time, the absence never really goes away. So too is the case with Ruth, who has lost her mother, but spends most of her life not knowing how or why. Finding a way to keep going, to create a life for oneself, and to find joy despite deprivation and pain is a challenge for all of the characters in The Imposter Bride. Both Ruth and her missing mother are forced by their losses to redefine themselves and figure out just what kind of new identities they can forge. Do they let themselves be defined by the events that have happened to them? Or do they decide for themselves who they want to be and how they want to live, and find a way forward?
Overall, reading The Imposter Bride was a mixed experience for me. The details are wonderful, the characters feel real, and yet the narrative itself fails to coalesce into a powerful whole, so that the novel felt to me more like a collection of moving stories and vignettes rather than a solid work of fiction with a begininng, middle, and end. I’m glad to have read it, but unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy The Imposter Bride or feel its impact nearly as much as I’d hoped to. Still, Nancy Richler is clearly a gifted and sensitive writer, and I’m sure I’ll seek out her works in the future.