The Imposter Bride, by Nancy Richler

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The Imposter Bride starts off with promise. The setting is a banquet hall in Montreal, shortly after the end of World War II. Lily Kramer and her new husband are sitting on either end of a couch “on which she assumed they were meant to consummate their marriage”:

In front of the couch was a table laid with fruit and hard-boiled eggs. Her husband picked up a plum and rolled it in the palm of his hand. His name was Nathan and she had known him for a week. It was his brother, Sol, she had been meant to marry, a man she had corresponded with but hadn’t met, who had caught one glimpse of her as she disembarked at the station and decided he wouldn’t have her. Lily watched Nathan roll the plum in his hand and wondered what his brother had seen in her that made him turn away.

That set-up is not quite as strange as it reads. Lily is a Jewish refugee from the war, who made her way to Palestine where the marriage of convenience was brokered. Sol had been given “a small payment, a token of appreciation, nothing lavish, just enough to give him a start he’d been needing”. Canada did have a disgraceful limit on Jewish refugees at the time (Richler does not make a big point of this) and this was one way around it.

Nathan, by nature an adapter not an originator, was more than willing to step into the gap his brother Sol left when the original groom took one look at Lily and decided she was “damaged goods…a broken life, a frightened woman, a marriage that would bind him — however briefly — to grief.”

Lily Azerov Kramer is not whom she said she was. She had stolen that name and identity from a body in a village in Poland in 1944 (“nothing went unused” is Richler’s description of what took place then):

And here are some of the things that that someone acquired when she stole the identity of a girl she hadn’t known at all in life: the name, first of all, Lily Azerov; the identity card; a pair of woollen socks; a notebook filled with dreams and other scribblings; a single frosted stone.

The final establishing element at the wedding occurs as the ritual bride/groom handkerchief dance takes place and Sol sits down at a table with a pair of guests who, it turns out, were not invited:

“It won’t last,” said a voice beside him, a voice that emanated from the throat of a woman but had the weight and the gravity of a man’s.

Sol turned and saw that he had joined the table of a guest he didn’t recognize, a middle-aged woman who either was or thought herself to be a cut above the rest of the guests. Her dress, a blue satin, was more formal than those of the other women, her bearing more upright and severe. Her hair was pulled back from a pale, wide brow and lacquered into a shell. She had not left her table the entire evening and had placed a restraining hand on the arm of the teenage girl beside her — her daugther, Sol assumed — every time the girl tried to rise to join the dancing.

That woman is Ida Pearl, a relative of the real Lily, who had been alerted to the wedding by another relative in Palestine whom the imposter Lily had visited while she was there (trying to fix some background to her adopted identity). And, just to keep the plot tidy, the teenaged daughter, Elka, will marry Sol.

All of this is told by a narrator we don’t know yet, but soon will. Ida is right, the marriage lasts only about a year. Nathan and imposter Lily do have a daughter, Ruth; Lily abandons her and Nathan when she is three months old, thoughtfully leaving a shelf of prepared formula in the fridge to tide them over until other arrangements are made. Ruth is raised by her single father, Uncle Sol and Aunt Elka, grandma Bella and Ida, who becomes a friend of the family — Ruth, now in her senior years, is the book’s narrator.

One final establishing event sets the main part of The Imposter Bride in motion: on Ruth’s sixth birthday (April 27, 1953) a package arrives containing a beautiful rock and a cryptic note: South shore of Gem Lake, Manitboa, 08:45, Apil 12th, 1953, clear, 31 degrees F, light wind. Ruth’s mother has re-opened contact — other rocks will arrive in the future.

Regular visitors who have been following reviews of this year’s Giller longlist may be wondering at this point whether they have not read several versions of this review before — I certainly am feeling that I have written a number. This year’s Real Jury seems to have decided that “children of trauma” will be the theme of the 2012 prize. I have now read 10 of the 13 and it has been the central story line in five of the 10 — jacket blurbs promise it will also be at the core of two of the remaining three. It is also a prominent secondary theme in the three other longlist novels that I have read and featured in a couple of the stories in both longlisted story collections.

While I have nothing against books featuring abandoned or traumatized children, a steady diet is not my idea of rewarding reading and it is influencing my critical reaction. 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. (If you do decide to read it, there are some very good set pieces and secondary story lines that I have not addressed here.)

So, yes, I am very grumpy with the 2012 Real Jury at this point. Last year’s longlist (you can find linked reviews to all of them in the sidebar) was exceptional: a wide variety of styles, approaches and stories, all of which had something to recommend them. Overall, it made for a great reading experience. This year, the Jury seems determined to give us 13 variations on a theme — and as much as the theme might have some appeal, it is starting to wear.

I’ll conclude with an apology to author Nancy Richler. This novel is probably quite a bit better than this review indicates — I’m afraid the frequent echoes that it raised during my reading effected my judgment so much that I can’t adequately evaluate the novel itself. I know that if it wasn’t for the Shadow Giller project I would have set it aside for later when I could have given it a fairer read and assessment.

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7 Responses to “The Imposter Bride, by Nancy Richler”

  1. Lee Monks Says:

    Your general point about the sameyness of the list is, at least, something that can’t be levelled at the Booker jury this year. They do have an eclectic bundle. In this case it would seem that it may be a problem, not just for yourself, Kevin, but for a jury tasked with re-reading (twice I assume) novels that are already in many ways difficult to differentiate. Do you feel it’s possible that the eligible titles were comparitively weak this year, hence the perhaps unavoidable thematic consistency?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I’d agree that a publishing season without a couple obvious standouts is partly responsible for my frustration. I’ve only read two of the four previous winners who were eligible (Vincent Lam and Linden MacIntyre) and neither would have made my longlist — so I can hardly fault the Real Jury for that. I’ve read short story collections that I prefer to the two they included, but there too I think it is a question of taste. And while I would have put some other novels on my longlist (most notably Tanis Rideout), that preference is a matter of degree and I don’t fault its exclusion.

    I think what frustrates me in those circumstances is that I would like to see the Jury offering a wider range of types of books, rather than variations on a theme.

    Having said all that, I still think a decent shortlist — and one that will attract some new readers — is still possible. I’m still considering whether or not to offer up one of my own before Oct. 1 — in most years I am not as far along with my Giller reading as I am this year so I haven’t usually attempted a personal list. I shall see how I feel on the weekend; there is one book in particular (Katrina Onstad’s Everybody Has Everything) that both Kim and Alison liked that I want to try to get to before the shortlist is announced.

  3. kimbofo Says:

    Interesting that you’ve noticed similiarities in themes on the list… The Laura Davis one certainly fits into that category, but not sure about the Richardson (which I didn’t like) or the Onstad (which I loved).

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    (SPOILERS)

    Kim: I’ll admit that my “children in trauma” net is a pretty broad one, but I’d include both the Richardson (which unlike you I did like) and the Onstad (which I haven’t read yet — it is next up) as part of the genre. We discover (here’s the spoiler) in the Richardson that the present-day baker is the son who share’s his father’s dyslexia — and we have the whole experience of the father sent to the trenches and returning as not a whole person.

    And the jacket blurb of my copy of the Onstad says it involves a couple who become legal guardians of a 2 1/2 year old when a car accident kills his parents, giving “rise to an often unasked question: Can everyone be a parent?”

    I’ll acknowledge that part of my problem may be that I am not a parent, so I don’t readily identify with the theme and need authors who produce strong characters if they are going to use it. None of the books that I have read is “bad” — I just find that a number seem to be melding into each other as I read the latest.

  5. buriedinprint Says:

    I think I am responding to different elements of the books on this year’s longlist, as I can see where you are finding the parallels here, but I must be distracted by other aspects of the stories, because I’m not struck by the same sense of same-ness as I’m reading.

    Except, perhaps, stylistically, for I miss the flare that titles like Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros, Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Zsuzsi Gartner’s stories brought to the list last year.

    Not all of those were favourites of mine, but I appreciated the variety that they brought to a reading of the longlisted titles, so I can certainly understand the sense of disappointment that you’re feeling in finding too much overlap thematically for your taste this year.

    The Imposter Bride might be my favourite of the jury’s shortlist, but I’ve yet to finish Ru

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BiP: My problem is probably that last year’s list had so many different types of books on it (and I thought most of them were very good) — this one’s seems to have many with similar story lines. Certainly, I don’t think that is the fault of the authors. However, it does seem that each time I pick up a title I am reading another version of the novel that I just finished.

    Although I should admit that 419, which I am now one-third through, is at least somewhat different. I want to be fair enough to it that I may delay the review so I can give it more time.

    • BuriedInPrint Says:

      It is a short timeframe in which to read so many books; I restarted Ru as well, thinking perhaps that I had rushed it, because I wasn’t enjoying it as much as many others had enjoyed it (not you though!). And this year’s longlist wasn’t even as long!

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