Critique – “The Imposter Bride” by Nancy Richler

The Imposter Bride

The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richter documents the life of a young Polish woman who steals a dead woman’s ID during the Second World War and uses it to come to Canada as a mail-order bride of sorts. In Montreal, Lily marries her betrothed’s brother, has a child and flees, leaving the child behind. As fate would have it, she meets Lily’s real cousin, whose daughter marries the man Lily was originally supposed to marry. The story is primarily told from two points of view, that of Lily and of her daughter Ruth. Lily’s story reveals a woman who feels guilty for having stolen a dead woman’s identity and who is so scared of being found out as an imposter she must flee. Ruth grows from a child to a woman with children of her own as the book unfolds, wondering the whole time why her mother left.

Nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, The Imposter Bride is told from third person omniscient point of view, which I found confusing. Chapters either tell Lily’s tale or Ruth’s and I would have a better feel for each of these potentially amazing women if their stories were exclusively told. In one paragraph I’m given Ruth’s thoughts, in the next, her grandmother’s, and I felt jarred at the shift, having to re-read sections as a result. The climax is told, rather than shown, quickly wrapping up most character’s lives in a single chapter and with little emotion. Maybe this is why I found it hard to identify with any of the characters.

At times, the writing is amazing. I feel the tension between strangers Lily and Nathan, especially on their wedding day, and the mystery of imposter Lily’s life drives the reader forward. Though I didn’t like the objective telling of the climax, I found this and the prologue the best parts of the novel as well as the most satisfying, but as I’ve said, lacking the emotion that helps me care when someone dies or achieves the closure for which she’s searched her entire life.

Richler overextends the plot as well, telling the story of Lily—both the real one and the imposter—and Nathan, his brother Sol and his wife, Elka, and children, Ruth and her friends and husband and children, and of grandparents Bella and Ida. There is a journal belonging to the real Lily, with which Ruth is nearly obsessed that haunts her childhood because it’s written in Yiddish and no one is willing to read it to her, and the stones that her mother randomly sends her on birthdays and the meaning Ruth makes of them. Richler also tells about Lily’s life after she leaves Nathan and Ruth, leaving the reader with too little information about too much and no specific detail about any of the characters and what motivates them beyond Ida’s exposing Lily for the fraud she is and Ruth’s obsession with the minutia—either real or perceived—of her mother’s life.  

Though Jewish, I tend to stay away from novels simply for their Jewish content as there is no guarantee a connection will be made between reader and protagonist beyond religious upbringing. I made an exception this time because of the first chapter which so poignantly sets up the relationships between Lily and Nathan and his brother Sol and the diamond-cutter’s daughter, Elka, but came close to closing it for good so many times for lack of that connection.

The Imposter Bride is well-written and has the potential for a great story behind the premise and wonderful voice, but something is lost in the telling of it, as the story jumps back and forth in time and in and out of too many characters’ minds.

About the Author

Elise Abram, English teacher and former archaeologist, has been writing for as long as she can remember, but it wasn’t until she was asked to teach Writer’s Craft in 2001 that she began to write seriously. Her first novel, THE GUARDIAN was partially published as a Twitter novel a few summers back (and may be accessed at @RKLOGYprof). Nearly ten years after its inception Abram decided it was time to stop shopping around with traditional publication houses and publish PHASE SHIFT on her own.

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