- Title: A Reliable Wife
- Author: Robert Goolrick
- Pages: Hardcover 291
- Published: March 2009, Algonquin Books
- Why did I read this book: It was on the end cap of my library’s New Release section and the title sounded vaguely familiar. NOTE TO SELF: stop picking up books with no research!
Set in 1909 Wisconsin the story opens in soon-to-be-familiar detailed and deeply moving writing style with a lonely man waiting on a cold platform for a train to beat the incoming blizzard. Ralph Truitt is waiting for the “reliable wife” for whom he advertised. Despite being the tycoon of his small Wisconsin town with business dealings reaching nationwide we learn that because of his lost family, no social interaction with anyone in the town, how they whisper about him, his loneliness and his desires, and a secret reason to unfold later…all led him to advertize and accept the responding letter of Catherine Land to be his new wife.
But as she steps off the train she is not what he expected, not the woman in the photo, and her surprising beauty is dangerous to him. He agrees to discuss it at home, but after a near fatal accident in the blizzard puts him under her immediate care they get to know each other and Catherine is in his home to stay. But for what reason? While Ralph’s back story of inheriting his father’s business enterprises, his wastrel youth spent in erotic debauchery abroad, change of lifestyle upon falling in love with a young Italian girl from a noble family, and then her and their daughter’s death is shared up front – Catherine remains a mystery. It slowly becomes apparent however that she came for more reasons that just to wed him in rural, snow-bound Wisconsin.
As you may be able to tell this book is mainly character driven but it also has a sub-plot of finding a missing person and a few attempted murders – actually all the sub-plot points are tied to Ralph’s family and Catherine’s lover, so it all circles back to the characters. There was much examination of the motivations of human beings to act the way they do, what shapes them? What drives them? What comforts them? And Ralph and Catherine were both obsessed with how people went “crazy” with multiple examples for local news and stories world-wide:
Every week the papers were filled with the barn burnings, the arsenic taken, the babies drowned in wells to keep their names a secret, to keep their fathers away from them, to keep them from knowing the craziness of love. To send them home to the holiness of God. He read these stories aloud to Catherine at night, after supper, and she would invent stories about the sad women and the deranged men.
It was sort of sick how many times they talked about people chopping off their hands because the “devil was in it” or shooting their wife while drunk. But that was part of them overall theme, telling the stories of the protagonists, telling the stories of secondary characters, telling the stories of the townsfolk who went crazy.
In fact, the book summarised itself perfectly right at the very end (it was very obvious it was coming, sort of like an 8th grade paper where you had to start building up towards your conclusion). This is NOT A SPOILER even though this quote takes place on page 281 out of 291 total. I just wish I had known what this book was about before I read it. As much as the summaries said it was a “dark tale” and Catherine had a nefarious purpose is responding to Ralph’s ad, I just didn’t know that was going to be the whole POINT. So here is how the book wraps itself up:
But there was no use. There was no point. It was just a story. It was just a story of people, of Ralph and Emilia and Antonio and Catherine and the mothers and the fathers who had died, too soon or late, of people who had hurt one another as much as people can do, who had been selfish and not wise, and had become trapped inside the bitter walls of memories they wished they had never had…
It was a story of people who hurt themselves, who wreck their own lives and then go on to wreck the lives of those around them, who cannot be helped or assuaged by love or kindness or luck or charm, who forget kindness, the feeling and practice of it, and how it can save even the worst, most misshapen life from despair.
It was just a story about despair.
So um yeah, not my usual lusty reading fare! This is what I get for trying to mix up my reading with some “literary fiction.” I find that any of those book club-y type books (especially Oprah’s book club) do NOT work for me. I find that many of them “try too hard” to make statements and be full of commentary on the human psyche, or too full of symbolism and want to be popular for making a point instead of telling a satisfying story.
And that was what happened here, the characters were so twisted it seemed like it was done on purpose, to wring a reaction out of the reader and also too much of a statement of the “badness” of human beings. There were no “good” characters to be found in the entire cast of secondary characters either. And I did not find Catherine redeemable in the least and Ralph’s last decision in the closing scene* about how to deal with her was not explained AT ALL it just ended. When Catherine started doing really bad things I started skimming, it was unreadable to me, it disgusted me, and even if that was the point, to examine how disgusting and horrible we can be to each other that’s why I watch the news. Not read a book.
So this is entirely based on my personal preferences, of course since this is a “lit fic book club” type book I am a very small voice in a crowd of many who adored it. If anything I wrote this review to myself to say, “Hey self? Be careful how you pick books!”
I must say that the prose was very evocative (I think that’s the word I wanted?), it was moving and detailed. It was beautiful. I felt the emotions of the characters, Catherine’s guilt, pain and love; Ralph’s sexual hunger, need to buy expensive things; Antonio’s abandonment and loss of compassion. The description of the wintery landscape, the view from the windows, the luxurious clothes, the rising industrial cities of St. Louis and Chicago…all of it laid out in metaphors and rich descriptions. But (yes there is a but) at some points I also wondered if the prose itself was also trying too hard? Maybe I’m being too harsh and am biased against literary fiction because I think it tries too hard in general to be the next Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird. But sometimes I felt the detailed descriptions were trying too hard to be “quotable” in a way, like how many adjectives and analogies can be fit into one paragraph about snow?
Please check out some of these other reviews as my thoughts are so influenced by my personal opinions:
*SPOILER ALERT for those who care about happy endings…
Yes this has a happy ending for Catherine and Ralph, but it was not satisfactory because it was completely not explained how forgiveness was possible or how anyone had changed. And everyone was so TWISTED and awful I didn’t care about them.