Nancy Richler’s moving third novel, “The Imposter Bride,” which opens in 1946 at a wedding in Montreal’s Jewish community. The bride, Lily Azerov, is a refugee from Poland, via Palestine. She brings with her an uncut diamond, a journal written in Yiddish and the grief of a brutally erased world.
But if her sorrow is genuine, her other possessions, including the name Lily, belong to a stranger; they aren’t hers. And the world she marries into is populated by strangers too. Her husband, Nathan, is one of them, doubly so: it was his brother whom she traveled half the world to marry, sight unseen, before he took one look at her “shadowed face, the dress, all wrong, that had obviously been chosen with care,” and fled from the engagement.As she herself would all too soon flee from Nathan and their infant daughter, Ruth.
Beautifully written, “The Imposter Bride” is alternately told in the third person, through Lily’s and other family members’ eyes, and the first person, through Ruth’s. We meet Ruth on her sixth birthday, when suddenly her lost mother mails her a present, “a pink rock” that was “smooth and shiny on top, and almost transparent in places, with jagged little nooks on the underside.”
The arrival of this opaque metonym-by-mail, the first of many she will receive from Lily, transforms the child: “All my life I had been a girl without a mother. She had left soon after I was born, and no one knew where she had gone. . . . I didn’t miss her, had never missed her. . . . 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, like the hole in the center of a bagel, without which a bagel would be something else. . . . Now, though, I had a mother. . . . And now, for the first time, I wanted more.”
Ruth’s story then becomes an intermittent quest to find out why her mother left, and who and where the strange and broken woman is who sends her stones as gifts, unsigned, accompanied only by an index card that names the lake beside which each was found. Silent, lovely and impenetrable, the stones express both Lily’s absence and her presence. They recall the stones Jews leave on the graves of loved ones, and the rock on which Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, known as the Foundation Stone in Jerusalem: were it to be removed, watery chaos would engulf the universe (so a rabbi friend informs me).
Lily’s stones embody her essential mystery — a mystery penetrated by only one other character in the book, the diamond-cutter, Ida Pearl, who knows that the hardest stones can shatter and fears for the impostor bride.
The single disappointment in Richler’s novel is its self-referential ending, too neat and too predictable. Besides which, Proust already did it. But why quibble with this tiny flaw in a narrative that speaks so astutely to the unspeakable losses inherent in the human condition? “The Imposter Bride” suggests that it is finally our shared unknowability that connects us.
A short excerpt here.