When working through a list of books, it’s always nice to come to the best one last. That’s how I felt about Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride (2012), my fifth and final read of this year’s Giller Prize shortlist. What I found here may not have been entirely to my tastes (I’ll get into why in a moment), but it was an always interesting story and Richler was a deft and controlled story-teller.
The Imposter Bride is, in its way, another World War II book. We see plenty of these every year, and at times I feel I’m not in the mood to go there again even though, often enough, I’m happy if I do. In this case, intrigue propelled the plot forward from the first pages, and Richler’s skills as a story-teller kept me going to the end.
When we begin, we are in a banquet hall in Montreal. Lily Kramer is sitting on a couch with her new husband, Nathan:
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.
We quickly learn that Lily has just arrived in Canada as a Jewish refugee. The doors were barely open and the ticket through was a waiting fiance. Sol signed up for the part, for a fee, but, when he saw the bride, “he recoiled”:
Damaged goods. That’s what he saw. A broken life, a frightened woman, a marriage that would bind him — however briefly — to grief.
Nathan approached Lily at the station, explained that Sol had left, and told her it was Sol’s loss. He would happily marry her.
The story gets stranger at the wedding. First, Sol is now upset. “The bride looked good to him now. There was a boldness in her expression that he hadn’t noticed before, that hadn’t been there, he could swear, when she first stepped off the train.” Nicely, Richler navigates through the crowd, shifting perspectives as easily as Tolstoy does in the crowds in Anna Karenina. Brooding, Sol sees two people he doesn’t know, a mother and daughter who were not invited.
The mother is Ida Pearl Krakauer. She came to the wedding because she had hoped the Lily Azerov getting married was her relative they believed lost in the war. Her daughter, Elka, came along and was surprised they stayed even after finding out this Lily was not their relative. “It won’t last,” are the first words Ida says to Sol.
We readers know that the Lily Azerov marrying Nathan is not actually Lily Azerov. She’s stolen that name from a corpse in Poland (“nothing went unused”).
This all happens in the first, dense but flowing chapter. We may suspect the remainder of the book will dwell on this situation, but there’s more. In chapter two, we meet Ruth, Nathan and Lily’s daughter. She’s already six years old, and she’s just received her first correspondence — a rock — from her mother in years as Lily abandoned her family when Ruth was still a baby.
Elka and Sol are married, and Nathan and Ruth live with them. The book proceeds from there, every once in a while stepping back in time in alternating chapters, but mostly moving us forward as Ruth grows up, learning about her family’s secrets and the hidden grief.
I liked this books quite a bit. As with most of the other books on this shortlist, it is heavily reliant on plot mechanics, some of which you just need to go along with. For example, it’s developed well enough, but the main reason Sol and Elka marry is for the book’s plot. Their wedding keeps the Kramers and Krakauers together so that Lily’s identity stays in the foreground. I found things like this easy to forgive, though, as Richler manages the characters and their varying emotions well.
I will say, though, that many parts of this story reminded me of one of my favorite reading experiences this year: Deborah Eisenberg’s “Cross Off and Move On” (reviewed here). That short piece published in The New York Review of Books also delves into family secrets from World War II that the next generation has to deal with. I found Eisenberg’s language and nuance superior to Richler, even if I consistently enjoyed and admired Richler’s story. Still, I recommend The Imposter Bride to anyone who finds the above interesting, and it is certainly my choice for this year’s Giller Prize.