Quick thoughts: Despite overflowing with rich motifs and emotional themes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this book was often holding back a true profundity that continually seemed to lurk just beneath the surface.
The Imposter Bride met an unfair barrage of preconceived biases from me before I even picked up the book, and I feel the need to begin my review of this Giller shortlist nominee with a brief outline of the hurdles I had placed before it. First of all, our copy was purchased by my wife, who had recently hit what appeared to be a title fad. Her recent purchases had included The Tiger’s Wife, The Soldier’s Wife and The Paris Wife, and The Imposter Bride felt like another in a long string of similar titles, already awash with the taint mediocrity before a word had been read. Secondly, there is no escaping the shadow cast by Mordecai Richler when the author not only shares the same last name (they are apparently second cousins), but also writes a story set in the same Jewish enclave in post-war Montreal that his novels so thoroughly inhabit.
In many ways, this novel found wings of its own and soared well above these impediments of my own creating. The story hinges on a Polish Jew named Lily Azerov, who purchases her post-Holocaust asylum in Canada by means of an ethically questionable arranged wedding. Her past is shrouded in mystery, and even her name is a lie. The narrative skips straight from the wedding to Lily’s six-year old daughter, Ruth, where we find out that Lily left her husband and newborn daughter without having made any effort to contact them since. The tale becomes a generational inquiry into origin and belonging as we follow the stories of mother, daughter and paternal grandmother over the course of fifty years in a effort to find some understanding or closure.
My reading notes spanned pages as I glutted myself on the richness of thematic exploration. I can’t begin to convey in a brief review the many ways in which names and the convention of naming was woven into the narrative, to the point of using scriptural begats and begots to fold names into the concept of human origins and a sense of familial lineage. The false name of Lily Azerov, the stories behind the naming of various characters, why G-d is unnameable, how geographical places are often named to evoke a description—these are all woven into a thematic exploration that vastly exceeded my expectations.
Questions bordering on philosophy are also asked of the characters’ actions. Is withholding information the same as lying, especially when the intent is to protect someone you love? Is taking the possessions of victims of war considered stealing if they are dead? Where is the line drawn between looking for answers and invading a person’s privacy?
Even the metaphors were stunning in their application. Ruth hears her mother described as a shattered person, and her only concept of the word comes from a memory of a china teacup hitting the floor. The teacup was tenderly restored to some sense of it’s original form, but it was now too weak and fragile to perform the function of holding water for which it was created. That image alone was worth the time spent reading the book.
And yet, there was always something holding me back. At first I thought it might be the narrative style, because it jumps between times and even voices, flipping midstream from inside one character’s head to another’s without warning. The explanation I’m favouring after finishing the book, however, is more that of feeling like many punches were pulled. There were several instances, for example, where everything was pointing toward some minor character being homosexual. I’m always the one who misses such allusions or suggestions, so when I’m actually seeing a gay subtext it usually possesses all the subtlety of a blunt weapon. When my assumptions proved to be unfounded, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It’s not that the author didn’t broach the topic, as there is a passing reference to homosexuality at the end. It just felt like there was something screaming beneath the words at times that was simply left unsaid.
There is one scene in the book where a character sees her destiny with the firm conviction of a Hebrew prophet of old, yet that destiny never comes to pass. In many ways, that is my lingering impression of The Imposter Bride. At times it seems possessed with the inevitability of its own destiny, yet the promise that seemed so certain at points never quite reached the fulfilment for which I was hoping.
See what some other bloggers have to say:
Buried in Print: “The pulse that Nancy Richler’s novel emits is a powerful one; it reads easily (like Ami McKay’s The Birth House, Lilian Nattal’s The River Midnight, Donna Morrissey’s Kit’s Law) but the story settles heavily in the reader’s heart.”
Jules’ Book Reviews: “…I found there wasn’t…anything to catch my attention and want to keep reading. I found it to be like all the other books out there with similar plots. It felt like I’ve read the story before, which made it easy to drift off while reading the book.”
Curled Up With a Good Book and a Cup of Tea: “The Imposter Bride, by Nancy Richler, is an incredible novel full of mystery, heartache, love and longing. From the first page I was drawn into the story and mystery of Lily Azerov and I didn’t want to put it down until all of the questions were answered.”
KevinfromCanada: “The Imposter Bride may well be quite a good book but I am afraid I can no longer tell since so many elements of it kept overlapping with others I have read recently.”