The storyline seems simple enough: A young woman, traumatized from the events she witnessed in Europe, arrives in Montreal after the war. She is there...moreThe storyline seems simple enough: A young woman, traumatized from the events she witnessed in Europe, arrives in Montreal after the war. She is there to meet her groom, whom she has never met before. But from the glimpse he has of her as she descends from the train, he decides he doesn't want to marry her. She ends up marrying his brother instead. They have a baby and when the baby is three months old, she disappears from their lives not even leaving them the solace of her real name.
If you think this is a spoiler alert, think again. This is the very beginning of the Imposter Bride, the event that propels the whole novel forward. Half of the novel is told from the perspective of the Imposter Bride's daughter, Ruth. Ruth grows up within the loving home of her father and extended family. She lacks for nothing except a mother, and the important knowledge of her own roots. It is also partly told in the third person. Almost archeologically, Richler pieces together the story of the woman who uses the name Lily Azerov. What happened to her in Europe? Why did she leave? Who was she really?
The most striking feature of this novel for me was the portrayal, through Ruth's eyes, of the Montreal Jewish community after the war. We all know the horrors of the holocaust, the terrible toll war takes on a country- the dead, the ill, the wounded. Whole cities and lives in ruins. What we don't think about as much is the emotional albatross the survivors wear around their neck for the rest of their lives. There is a scene where a man stares at Lily in a cafe. Increasingly uncomfortable, Lily leaves the cafe. He follows her out, runs after her in a panic, calling her by another name. When Lily finally turns to confront him, she sees the look of expectation, of hopeless hope on his face. Then he looks at her and knows right away it isn't who he thought it was. Richler describes in that scene a whole generation of people running after girls in cafes, girls who held their coffee cup in the same way as their sister, mother. A whole generation of people looking for their dead in the faces of the living.
Having said that, would I recommend this books whole heartedly? Alas no. I am honestly not sure what it is- perhaps the disjointed story lines, the back and forth of Lily's story. Or maybe the narrator was too distant, like they were telling us this story from a football field away. Either way, though the intention was clear, there was an emotional detachment to this story that did not fit with the subject matter. I was never fully engaged with the characters, never plunged deeply into the plot. It was a book I could put down easily and was not in a rush to pick up. If this sounds like wishy washy criticism, believe me I agree. I am just not sure how else to put it and am not sure what exactly it was about the story that did not move me more than it did. The writing was excellent, the plot interesting. But the fact remains, though I liked this book and there were many great factors about it, I did not love it as much as I wanted to.
Laure Beauséjour was taken from her beggar parents by the Paris authorities when she was just seven years old and placed in the Salpêtrière, a catch a...moreLaure Beauséjour was taken from her beggar parents by the Paris authorities when she was just seven years old and placed in the Salpêtrière, a catch all institute for poor, sick, mentally ill, or criminal women (and by criminal read prostitutes). She was lucky enough to spend a few years as the serving girl of an elderly matron, who treated her as if she was her own daughter. The matron taught her to read, dressed her up in fancy clothes, doted on her. When the matron died, Laure found herself back in the Salpêtrière where she had to work her way up to the dorm of the bijoux, the model girls of the institute. there she works on her needlepoint and dreams of getting out and being a seamstress.
Her hopes are dashed when one of her dorm mates falls ill and dies. Laure, who never like the girl, is shaken to her core and writes a letter to the king to ask for better and more food for the girls. For her trouble she is sent on the next boat to Canada as a Fille du roi.
Desrochers has given us a historical novel with a capital H, with this glimpse into the before and after life of one of the poor girls shipped from France in order to populate the colony. Laure and all the other poor waifs from Paris were malnourished, uneducated and without any of the skills needed for their new life. Yet, the roughness of the new land is softened a little bit (not by much) by the new found freedom. There is nobody watching over her anymore- no superiors , no police, not even any of the old social norms that used to keep the women in place in the old world. In Laure, Desrochers has painted us a picture of a young, bitter woman who was not happy with her lot in Paris and is definitely not happy to find herself in Canada, which rings true to my ears. Yet she survives and soldiers on even if she never really reconciles herself to her fate. The plot gathers speed when she gets to the new world and she meets a young native man who seems as between two worlds as herself. Yet, the new world has its own rules and Laure must follow them even if it goes against her own heart.
Did I enjoy this book? Yes, but...I am struggling to understand my own lukewarm reaction to it. Perhaps it is because, though Laure's bitterness was understandable, it made it hard to empathise with her. I never felt directly affected by her plight, but more as if I was reading the Typical Trajectory of a Filles du Roi for social studies class. Though I found it interesting enough to keep reading, all the visceral reactions you have when you are reading a good book were not there: I did not feel horrified when I should have felt horrified, I did not feel the terrible loneliness of her first winter though I know it was terribly lonely. I did not feel too bad or worried for Laure when she made her bad decisions.
Perhaps my humming and hawing comes from the fact that it probably would be a good compliment for a Social Studies Class. I just wish I liked it more than I did. (less)