Set in Montreal at the end of World War II, this book paints a picture of love and support within a Jewish family coping with loss. The story is a complicated one and begins with the wedding of a bride who had just arrived from the horrors of World War II with a brief stopover in Palestine. She is an imposter in that she took the identity card of a dead woman in order to get out of Europe. Her intended husband lost his nerve and bolted at the train station, a choice he came to regret after his brother married Lily. But then Lily herself bolts and leaves her young baby in the care of the extended family.
The story unfolds in a complex way, focusing in turn on each of the characters, including Ruth, Lily's daughter who tells her story in the first person. Although Ruth is troubled by having been abandoned by her mother, she reminds herself of her loving and attentive extended family. We get to know the characters both through Ruth's eyes and independently.
I came to love all the richly-drawn characters. There's Bella, Ruth's grandmother, who was a Bolshevik in her native land, Ida Pearl, such a talented a diamond cutter in Antwerp that she was expelled by her uncle so she wouldn't show up his sons, Ida's daughter Elka who mothers Ruth with warmth and intelligence, and Ruth's fearless friend Carrie.
The effects of the loss of one's past is, of course, a theme. Sometimes the loss is minor, as when the formidable Ida Pearl reassures the young Ruth that after she has moved, her mother would still be able to find her, saying "Life is change, my dear, so we might as well enjoy it, don't you think?" But this is the story of large losses, like the one suffered by Lily. Ida Pearl says to Ruth
Were the shocks and losses she [Lily] suffered so extreme that she really no longer felt like the person she had been before the war? ... A human being's not an egg, after all, carrying her essence from place to place inside a shell. We rely on our surroundings and the people who know us to remind us who we are. You don't believe me, I know. I see it in your face. You think that who you are is written in stone and that if you were to be torn from your world and flung into another you'd land there the same Ruth Kramer you've always been. But you wouldn't, believe me. I didn't. Your grandmother didn't. Your grandfather didn't, may he rest in peace.
Ultimately Lily is unable to assume the dead woman's identity or find a new one and become a member of the community so she leaves. Each of those around her feel they were responsible for her leaving.
It is a coincidence that some members of the family immigrated from Russia, recalling with nostalgia their life in Berdychev, as that was the origin of the Ephrussi family that I recently read about in The Hare with Amber Eyes.
The intensity of the tone, the beautiful revelation of the characters over the years, and the obvious love and respect of the author for the characters make this a great read. This will be in my top 10 for 2013.
Nancy Richler, The Imposter Bride, St. Martin's Press, 2012, 368 pages (I read the Kindle version).