Tragedy and love in Canada
When immigrants move to a new country, they often find it necessary to reinvent themselves. Some transform their lives in order to survive in a different environment. Others seek a fresh start so they can forget the past. Still others disguise their identities, for example, using a new name to mask their innermost self. The theme of re-invention serves as the core of Nancy Richler’s moving novel, “The Imposter Bride” (St. Martin’s Press). Richler’s insight into her characters shows just how difficult it is to make connections, while still offering hope that love and caring can sustain us.
Lily Azerov’s arrival in Montreal from Europe after World War II serves as a catalyst that changes the course of several lives. She expects to marry Sol Kramer, but though the two have exchanged letters, they have never met. Unfortunately, their first meeting is not a success: Sol refuses to marry her. That doesn’t end Lily’s connection to the Kramer family, though: Sol’s brother, Nathan, agrees to take his place. Although Nathan finds himself deeply in love with Lily, he is unable to pierce the mystery of her past. Then one day, Lily not only deserts her husband and their life together, but their baby daughter. The repercussions of this event resonate through two generations.
Richler alternates between a third person narration that focuses on several characters and the first-person narration of Lily’s daughter, Ruth. This juxtaposition makes it possible for Richler to show how different characters interpret the same event, with each coming to very different conclusions about what occurred. For example, Lily believes Nathan decides to marry her “to banish her shame.” However, shame plays no part in his desire to wed. Instead, he finds himself immediately attracted not only to her good looks, but “the tension in her, a feral tension, part hunger, part fear. That was what had quickened his blood.” This is just one of many examples where Richler deftly portrays both sides of a story. Sometimes the different reactions are quickly uncovered; other times, alert readers will discover them in later chapters.
The most interesting storylines offer insights into the nature of adjusting to a new land, particularly for Lily and her mother-in-law, Bella, For example, Bella escaped from Russia after the revolution, leaving behind three children who died of hunger and illness. She and her husband, Joseph, hope emigrating to Canada will allow them to build a better life. Yet, their reactions to events and their new home turn out to be very different. One example of this occurs when Bella discovers she’s pregnant. Joseph wants to name their son after his late brother. However, “Bella didn’t want to plant in new earth what had withered in the old. She wanted a fresh name, one unrelated to anyone she and Joseph had ever known... They had been given another child, another chance, and were heading for a new life in a new and distant land.” Unfortunately, things don’t turn out exactly as Bella had planned.
Lily also finds it difficult to adjust to all she has lost, particularly when she is treated as a charity case who knows nothing about survival. At one point, she feels “sudden anger at [Nathan’s] assumption that it was she who was the more ignorant of the two – she who spoke five languages and could get by in several others, who smuggled lives across borders he wouldn’t be able to find on a map. Rage, in fact, that it should come down to this: if Nathan Kramer would have her, she would have him and be grateful.” Yet, Lily acts in unexpected ways, ways that will puzzle the daughter who never knew her. In fact, Ruth will find her life greatly affected by the mystery that surrounds her mother’s actions.
Richler’s beautifully written prose invites readers into the hearts and souls of her characters. As with real life, not everything can be known; sometimes the source of our actions is a mystery even to ourselves. Yet, “The Imposter Bride” is so satisfying and rich, readers will muse on her characters’ decisions long after the last page is turned.