The Imposter Bride, by Nancy Richler. St. Martin’s Press. 368 pages. $24.99.
This probing, dazzling fiction explores the nature – the relative stability and malleability – of identity. Its initial center of focus is the attractive but enigmatic Lily Azerov, a survivor of the Holocaust who as a young woman arrives in Montreal to fulfill an arranged marriage with Sol Kramer. Improbably, Sol severs the plan after glimpsing her at the train station. Nathan, Sol’s brother, partly out of genuine attraction but also motivated by family shame, takes Lily for his bride. Almost nothing is known about her background.
At the wedding , an uninvited guest suspects that something is wrong. Ida Pearl Krakauer, an immigrant diamond cutter and dealer, has crashed the event to see if this woman is her cousin Lily Azerov who vanished in the Holocaust. She is quite sure that this young woman is an imposter, even though she has identification papers. Ida’s suspicions eventually threaten Lily’s fragile cocoon of deception.
Lily lives reclusively among the Kramers, rarely venturing out of the room provided for her and Nathan. Her mother-in-law, Bella, cannot fathom Lily’s behavior. It’s clear that Lily is lost in her own thoughts, minimizes interaction, and probably has something to hide. A year goes by, during which Lily gives birth to Ruth, but soon after she disappears without a trace. Her legacy is a diary and an uncut diamond, which at one point she had brought to Ida’s shop for an estimate of its worth.
With her disappearance, the mystery of her true identity deepens, as does the reason behind her deceit.
Most of the story is told from the perspective of the daughter, Ruth, who is communally mothered in her Jewish Canadian Kramer family. She is raised in part by her grandmother Bella, and later also by her Aunt Elka, Ida’s young daughter whom Sol chooses to marry. The story eventually covers sixty years of history, from the late Holocaust years to 2005. During the journey, we receive a brilliant portrait of Jewish Montreal and an even more brilliant probing into the psychology of identity, the focus slowly shifting from Lily’s gradually uncovered secrets to Ruth’s need to define herself.
Generally, the story moves forward as it follows Ruth’s life: her school years at a Young Israel (modern Orthodox) day school, her college years at McGill University, her father’s remarriage and second family, her own marriage to the more religious Reuven, the births of her three children, her ongoing interaction with her father’s family, and the various degrees of emptiness and pain consequent upon being abandoned by her mother.
Interspersed throughout Ruth’s story are vignettes that go back to Lily’s time in Montreal, and Lily’s longer-reaching memories, each flashback revealing some important information. These occur, then, not where they fit into the larger timeline, but rather when they best serve readers’ needs to further understand Lily and when they maximize suspense.
Finding Lily is always somewhere in Ruth’s thoughts and reveries. The connection is fostered for a long time by mysterious gifts that Lilly sends to her without a return address. These are smooth stones, with notes about precisely where and when they were found. At first, they come at short intervals, then at much longer ones. Their colorings and other physical properties are provocative, but their meaning remains as elusive as Lily herself. That Lily has touched them and remembers Ruth is what’s important.
Thus, these symbolic items connect to Ruth’s other items of inheritance: the uncut diamond and the diary of a young girl – the real Lily Azerov – that had been the imposter’s keepsakes since the war years. Like the stones sent by Lily, the diary and the diamond are totems of identity. The uncut diamond and the interrupted diary suggest unfinished processes. The stones are like ellipsis marks awaiting closure.
The final steps in Ruth’s quest are remarkable: courageous, revealing, and filled with a glimmering sadness all at the same time. I won’t give them away.
The Imposter Bride is meticulously constructed, and it is scored in glowing prose. Its combination of imagination and craft may remind readers of the novels of the late Canadian literary giant Mordechai Richler, Nancy Richler’s cousin. Ms. Richler, too, is highly acclaimed. Her first novel, Your Mouth Is Lovely, won the 2003 Canadian Jewish Book Award. The Imposter Bride, first published in Canada last year, was short-listed for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize.
This review appears in the June issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee & Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).