THE IMPOSTER BRIDE by Nancy Richler (HarperCollins), 352 pages, $29.99 cloth. Richler reads at the International Festival of Authors as part of the Giller program Saturday (October 27). See listing. Rating: NNN
It would be stretching things to suggest that a Giller short list nod is a curse (like, say, winning a supporting actress Oscar when young), but making it to the Giller gala does raise major expectations. And Nancy Richler's The Imposter Bride doesn't quite meet them.
It's a very good book, make no mistake, with a two-pronged narrative. In one, laden with backstory, Lily, a Holocaust survivor, marries in Montreal and then abandons her three-month-old daughter, Ruth. In the other, Ruth tries to find out what happened to her mother and why she keeps sending her rocks in packages with the postmarks of remote Canadian towns.
But it has a problem with focus. Ruth, unfortunately, isn't the story's most interesting character. Sol, her uncle, who's supposed to marry Lily through an arrangement but bails the minute he sees her, is a man I want to know more about. And I wish Richler had fleshed out Ruth's socialist grandmother, Bella, whose three children died during the Russian Revolution and whose husband never recovered.
There are gorgeous set pieces: a high school teacher, also a survivor, has bouts of tears in class; Ruth's father, Nathan, notices his father daydreaming on a park bench. A scene in which Ruth's great aunt Ida, a forbidding character, serves her tea has unusual charm. And Richler navigates psychological terrain with great skill.
But this is a mystery that requires a payoff, and it lacks the punch at the end that you'd expect. It feels like Richler wants to play down the emotional force usually associated with Holocaust stories, possibly so as not to be accused of exploiting the 20th century's most catastrophic collective tragedy.
But that kind of restraint works against the needs of the narrative.
We find out if Richler takes the Giller Prize on Tuesday (October 30).
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