Love Narratives

  • Nancy Richler
    The Imposter Bride. HarperCollins
  • Helen Humphreys
    The Reinvention of Love. HarperCollins
Reviewed by Susanne Goodison

The characters in The Reinvention of Love search for an authentic self through writing and relationships. The central love story is revealed in layers with counterpoints illuminating the relationships between Charles Saint-Beuve, Adèle Hugo, and Victor Hugo prior to Hugo’s success. As Charles and Adèle move toward an affair, it’s clear that each seeks an internal locus of power and independence from Hugo’s narcissistic personality, but both of them fail. Their affair revolves around Hugo, despite Adèle’s perspective that her affair provides moments when she is free to be the agent of her life, to be herself. She also has to acknowledge the futility of her attempt: “Was I merely a trophy to be flourished and fought over in this contest between Charles and Victor? Was everything really about literature after all?” So it is. Superficially, Adèle is a female muse, but we see the lines between writing, economics, and personal character blur for both men throughout the novel. While the affair itself is only short, it inspires much of Charles’ creative work and lives in the imagination of both lovers. They think about and meet each other at key moments in their lives and always their thoughts illustrate the story of who they wanted to be, not who they are.

The Reinvention of Love is the reinvention of self through the re-telling of the touch, rapture, and damage of love. The novel is based in historical record, and the author has gone far in her attempt to inhabit the voices of the less famous protagonists. She uses their words, even translating Charles’ poetry. Yet the historical forces seem peripheral to the individual love story, and this creates a problem: Adèle’s attempt to escape Victor’s self-centredness is best enjoyed if the reader likes Charles. And truth be told, I didn’t. He’s self-aware, loyally committed to his illicit love, physically rare, and generally doing the best he can under the circumstances he’s born into. Except for the self he displays when he is with Adèle, he is generally as narcissistic as Hugo, and utters too many seemingly profound statements about the nature of love and writing. Charles’ words and voice carry a nineteenth-century aesthetic with them, which may reduce this story’s reach.

On the other hand, the history told through The Imposter Bride is recent so that there is no distance from the characters, and the individual story is one to break your heart. Lily Azerov Kramer leaves her husband and her daughter Ruthie when the baby is two months old. Ruthie has had no contact with her mother except through a series of rocks that arrive in the mail, a completely opaque communication that nevertheless comforts Ruth during her search to understand her abandonment and to feel her mother’s love. Yet the reader is more sympathetic to the damage her mother causes because of her history as a Jewish refugee from Poland.

The novel is written episodically so as to make the reader discover things as slowly as Ruthie herself does. Much of this work is done through two extended and evolving metaphors. Both start as objects Lily Kramer has touched. Meaning is added over time and through the interpretative touch of others. Alone, Ruthie is unable to parse these objects into the connection she desperately wants but can rarely feel. She knows they’re significant, but she doesn’t understand how; she doesn’t have enough facts. First are the rocks that her mother sends her that are fraught with “a secret, unique communication between my mother and me.” These rocks could not be more different from the uncut diamond that Lily Kramer left behind; Ruthie is given it at sixteen. That diamond, “nothing in it but sorrow,” is the first clue to the truth of who Lily Kramer is.

Second, there are two notebooks, again given to Ruthie at sixteen, one written in Yiddish (a language she does not speak) and one in which there is no writing. Whose journal is the first? Is it literature? Who is the woman author? Read by other characters, segments of the journal appear throughout the story, each time offering clues, setting up false trails. The seemingly empty journal also confounds: “I had once thought that maybe [Lily] had written in it using invisible ink, and that that was why she’d left it behind. Because she knew some day I’d figure out the solution to making the ink visible.” When it is clear the solution is beyond her, sixteen-year-old Ruthie tries to use it herself, but fails: “It was as if the pages were already filled.” Another character gives Ruth the insight to the relationship between the two metaphors: to cut the diamond into beauty, the artist must know the diamond’s “inner landscape” intimately; the journal’s story can’t be freed until someone understands it as well. The uncut diamond bears silent witness to the story Ruth’s mother lived; the unwritten journal bears witness to the overpowering desire to reach into those silences and speak what is witnessed. The novel speaks to the role of the artist in bearing witness to history, personalizing it, releasing it for others to experience.

The real and imagined answers to the question of Ruthie’s abandonment are less important than the fleeting moments of connection, of acceptance, of love that they reveal. In The Imposter Bride, as in The Reinvention of Love, love’s narrative drives the characters and the readers through history to art.

This review “Love Narratives” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 167-68.

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