This book has a promising beginning. It is 1946, and Lily Azerov has come to Montreal to meet Sol Kramer for an arranged marriage; they have never met. Upon seeing her get off the train, Sol has a change of heart, but his brother Nathan likes what he sees, and steps up to takes Sol’s place.
Lily doesn’t adjust well, in spite of Nathan’s and even Sol’s infatuation with her. (Sol regretted his actions almost immediately.) Lily is like someone haunted, and spends most of her time alone and closed away in her room.
When the daughter that Lily has with Nathan is just three months old, Lily disappears, leaving a note to say she is sorry. No one hears from her again until the daughter, Ruth, turns six. At this point, in April of 1953, Ruth picks up the main narration of the book, beginning when she receives a strange birthday package that the rest of the family agrees is from her mother.
The story then proceeds with alternate narrators. Most of the time we follow Ruth as she grows up, trying to deal with the emptiness of having a loving extended family, yet knowing her own mother walked away from her. Over the years she gets a few more packages from her mother (albeit unsigned); they always contain rocks and a notation about their provenance. But no one really knows what happened to Lily, any more than why she left.
Lily even takes a turn as one of the narrators, although we still don’t learn much from her except that the experience of the Second World War caused her a great deal of pain and guilt. Without knowing the details, her story just didn’t elicit any sympathy or compassion in me for her.
As the years pass, Ruth finally gets closer to the truth and finally has the opportunity to find out everything, but declines to pursue all the answers. (And why she doesn’t is a bit of a mystery, since she spent her whole life wondering these things.) We are given a lot to think about instead however, such as what the nature of love is, and about the ways in which love and the forms it takes help define the nature of the self. This latter point is the most crucial to this story: the kind of love that means the most to you and the role it plays it your life can show more about who you are and what you need that anything else you say or do.
Discussion: Apparently the opening premise is similar to what happened to the author’s grandmother, who came to Canada from Eastern Europe expecting to marry a man who rejected her upon her arrival.
It serves well as a story arc, but would work much better if we ever got even the slightest idea of who some of the characters are as people. There aren’t many characters, and so it is particularly unsatisfactory that we come to know so little about them. Who are Sol and Nathan and why do they react the way they do? What about Sol’s future wife, on whom it fell to raise Ruth? The author doesn’t tell us much at all. We get a little more information about the mother of Sol and Nathan and about Sol’s future mother-in-law. As for Ruth’s birth mother, we end up knowing hardly more about her at the end of the book as we did in the beginning. It left me feeling disappointed, as if I had wanted stew and had to settle for broth.
Evaluation: There are some big gaps in the major plotline, oddly combined with the inclusion of some rather elaborate minor plotlines that are dead-ends, i.e., neither really going anywhere nor contributing much to the story. Nevertheless, it is a compelling read, and it was shortlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most distinguished literary prize for the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English.
Published in the U.S. by St. Martin’s Press, 2013