Quill and Quire


« Back to
Book Reviews

The Imposter Bride

by Nancy Richler

Nancy Richler’s third novel is an ambitious family drama set in postwar Montreal, where Polish Jew Lily Azerov has come to marry a man she has never met. Her intended, Sol, takes one look at her standing on the train platform and walks away, deciding that despite her beauty, there is something about her that doesn’t feel right. (Intuition and instinct are recurring themes in the novel.) When her erstwhile fiancé’s brother, Nathan, comes to apologize for Sol’s behaviour, he is instantly taken with Lily and soon proposes. Having no other prospects, she agrees.

The book alternates between chapters told in third person and those narrated by Lily and Nathan’s daughter, Ruth, who is barely three months old when her mother leaves to buy milk one afternoon and never returns. Life goes on. Ruth’s upbringing falls to her father and other family members, including Sol and his wife, Elka (who becomes like a surrogate mother); Nathan’s mother, Bella; and Elka’s mother, Ida Pearl. The arrangement works, and for a time, Ruth is happy.

Then, on her sixth birthday, a package arrives, containing a chunk of quartz along with a note, written in Lily’s hand, detailing when and where the rock was found. For the first time, Ruth begins to wonder about the woman who abandoned her: “In a way it was as if she had never existed for me. I didn’t miss her, had never missed her. I would not have known what to miss. Her absence was more a background to my life than anything else. It was a given, a stable fact of life that was definitional, not dynamic…. Now, though, I had a mother.”

As more packages arrive over the years, Ruth’s curiosity about Lily grows. Her attempts to learn more about the elusive woman are thwarted by her fam­ily, not simply out of a desire to protect the young girl, but because, in many cases, they genuinely don’t have any information
to divulge.

What is clear is that Lily Azerov is not who she claimed to be. Lily has stolen someone else’s identity; when she fled, she left behind a journal written by the other woman and an uncut diamond taken from her. These items appear throughout the story as possible keys to Lily’s true identity, but the intrigue Richler weaves around them ultimately comes to naught. In the end, it is Ruth’s grandmother who provides the answers she is looking for.

Though Ruth and Lily are the most fully formed characters, the book is about much more than a daughter’s quest to uncover the truth about her long-lost parent. Richler provides a large cast of characters, each of whom has experienced tragedy. Bella lost three children during the Russian Revolution – a heartbreak from which her husband never recovered, despite their immigration to Canada and the birth of two more sons. The husband’s untimely death after being hit by a streetcar – an event some suggest wasn’t accidental – is another blow to Bella. And yet she perseveres. She raises her children, remains part of her community, and eventually finds some measure of contentment.

The sharp contrast between Bella’s ability to cope with grief and Lily’s attempt to outrun her own pain is but one manifestation of a larger theme that carries throughout the novel. Elder characters chronically view younger ones as weaker, thinner-skinned, and whiny. When Elka believes she’s been rejected by Sol in the early days of their courtship, she is afraid to admit the heartache to her mother “for fear of Ida’s disdain, her dismissive irritation that Elka could even think of comparing the trivial struggles of her own life with those her mother had endured and overcome.” Similarly, Canadian-born characters often sense that recent émigrés consider them to be inferior to those who perished in Europe.

As if the main themes of loss, familial relationships, abandonment, and rebirth were not enough, Richler further overburdens her story with token references to anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, social superiority, poverty, and gender roles. The effect is one of superficiality. Rather than focusing on themes that resonate through a handful of strong protagonists, Richler takes a scattershot approach in attempting to relay the experience of Jews in Montreal, and elsewhere, after the Second World War. It’s all quite dizzying.

And yet, there is also something compelling about the saga Richler creates. We want to know each character’s history. Who is Lily, really? Why did she leave? Will Ruth ever find her? And what’s up with the rocks? There are many plot elements and scenes that could easily be deleted without detracting from the overall fabric of the narrative, but we are able to forgive these asides because, in the end, Richler manages to make us care about her vast catalogue of broken souls, even in their most trivial moments.


Reviewer: Dory Cerny

Publisher: HarperCollins Canada


Price: $29.99

Page Count: 352 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-1-44340-402-0

Released: March

Issue Date: 2012-3

Categories: Fiction: Novels