A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife.As promised, here I am, writing about A Reliable Wife.

I don’t know why I’ve been procrastinating.  Maybe because the crazypantness of the plotting gets me all worried about Releasing The Spoilers.  But I’ll be careful.

Wisconsin, 1907.  Ralph Truitt stands alone on a railway platform, waiting for a woman he’s never met — the woman he plans to marry.  His advertisement for A Reliable Wife (See what I did there?  Ho ho ho, my cleverness knows no bounds!) brought in mailbags of responses, but only Catherine Land’s “I am a simple, honest woman…” that spoke to him.

When she steps off of the train, though, he knows that she is something other than what she claimed in her letters — because the photograph she sent him was a picture of someone else.

Don’t fool yourself.  This is no Sleepless in Seattle.  There is romance, yes.  But it is a very dark, often-unpleasant sort of romance.  Surrounding the romance is deception, guilt, terror, lust, despair, obsession, vengeance, violence and a planned murder.  But don’t let the darkness scare you off, either, because there’s also hope and renewal, reclamation, recreating and rebirth¹.

The Verdict, in Brief:  Do the words Sexy Literary Historical Potboiler fill you with joy?  Then read it.

The prose:  I liked it.  In another book, I’d probably have felt that a passage like this:

Her true heart, however, was buried so far inside her, so gone beneath the vast blanket of her lies and deceptions and whims.  Like her jewels now beneath the snow, it lay hidden until some thaw might come to it.  She had no way of knowing, of course, whether this heart she imagined herself to have was, in fact, real in any way.  Perhaps it was like the soldier’s severed arm that keeps throbbing for years, or like a broken bone that aches at the approach of a storm.  Perhaps the heart she imagined was one she had never really had at all.  But how did they do it, those women she saw on the street, laughing with their charming or their ill-tempered children in restaurants, in train stations, everywhere around her?  And why was she left out of the whole sentimental panorama she felt eddying around her every day of her life?

was over-dramatic and WAY over the top, but in this book, describing and speaking for these characters, it made sense.  It fit.  It didn’t feel self-consciously Big L Literary or like the author was Trying Too Hard.  It had an excellent rhythm, created in part by the repetition of phrases and words and ideas, which underscored the obsessions of the characters while making me feel like I was reading the book on a train.  (Really.  I could not only hear the chugga-chugga, but I could feel it, too.)

Wisconsin Death Trip.

It was super atmospheric, and Ralph’s ruminations about the world outside of his physically comfortable, almost cloistered existence — lists (and sometimes descriptions) of arson, suicide, murder, self-mutilation, poverty and sickness — added to that in a huge way.  Goolrick credited Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip as a big part of his inspiration, especially in terms of era and setting, in his author’s note — I’ve been paging through it over the past few days, and, yeah.  I see it.  With only the Lesy to go on, small-town Wisconsin in the 1890s looked to be full of madness and violence and need and despair and desperation.

The plotting was strong, too, with twisty twists that felt right when revealed.  There was enough foreshadowing that the twists didn’t come out of left field, but the hints of What Was To Come were subtle enough that some of them were surprising — and sometimes I realized what the characters were going to do before they did.  Because they, as themselves, were too close to see it, whereas I, as the observer, was a step back.  Reading this book felt… voyeuristic.  But not in a back way.

I’ve talked about the book with a few people, and opinions have ranged broadly — one person praised it for being “intensely sexual without being graphic”, whereas another specifically disliked the themes of sexuality and obsession (and she said something along the lines of “I thought he should just… GET OVER IT”), and yet another really liked the book, but hated all of the people in it — of all of us, I’m definitely the one who’s had the strongest positive feelings about it.  Because I enjoyed everything about it — including the characters.  Well, most of them.

Closest readalike I can think of?  DuMaurier’s Rebecca, but I’d love to hear other suggestions.  Because I’m always up for a well-written potboiler.  (I realize that that’s an oxymoron, but I don’t care.)

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¹AND HOW.  I’m not sure if he could’ve fit any more rebirth imagery in there:  a garden, a Journey to the Edge of Death and back, big water stuff…

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Book source:  My local library.

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10 Responses to A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

  1. Margaret S. says:

    Readalikes? I might change my mind after reading it, but based on what you’ve written here it reminds me rather a lot of Alice Munro (an author who doesn’t write potboilers!) The sentence “But how did they do it, those women she saw on the street, …?” is quite Munro-esque, as is the setting and time period, and the mixture of romance with “deception, guilt, terror, lust, despair, obsession, vengeance, violence and a planned murder.”

  2. Huh. I had no idea that Munro wrote anything along those lines — I’ll have to take at zoom through the library stacks tomorrow.

  3. tulip says:

    Gah! Why do you make me want to read these books NOW when I am number 59 on the waiting list to get it!? Sounds like fun! Rebecca is one of my absolute favorite books so this sounds right up my alley!

  4. OKP says:

    Wasn’t sure if I was going to participate in my book club this month — and here you go and talk about the book we’re scheduled to read! I’m in.

    • Nice! Like I said to tulip, let me know how it goes — so curious!

      • OKP says:

        It’s probably too early to write, since I finished it five minutes ago. I liked the style, though I started to read in shorter bursts because it felt…overwrought sometimes (too potboiler-y?), like spraying too much perfume on and smelling absolutely nothing else for the rest of the day and into the evening.

        I felt removed from the characters, in part because of the omniscient narrator; it almost felt as if the narrator weren’t just narrating the story, but the story of me reading the story — I felt small and childish and ‘explained to’.

        There were parts where I loved the language and I thought Goolrick got sumptuousness pitch perfect. I wanted to see those places and eat the food and wear the clothes…but then I would be bothered by the fact that no one in the book seems to feel anything genuine, or when they do, they question every single detail about the given moment — like Mighty Third Person Omniscient floods them with millions of thoughts just to point out how damned complex everybody is.

        You were right about the reveals, though, and the twists — I was on board for that. I felt surprised, but then, of course, that’s the way it is. Although the “These things happened” line started to get on my nerves. It was too Vonnegut…1907’s “and so it goes.”

        When all these thoughts sort themselves out, I might have an opinion. Right now, I have about twelve:

        Yeah, that was good.
        Do these people think about sex all the time?
        Do real people think about sex like this all the time?
        These folks are odd.
        Stop calling the day, the heart, the garden “hard and bright.”
        He’s OK being poisoned?
        What the hell is wrong with you people?!
        That’s a neat description; I like that.
        I like that she likes libraries.
        WTF angel?
        Lots of talk about fabric.
        I didn’t even notice a bird metaphor — thank you, reader’s guide at the end.

        So, when all that settles down, I think I might have liked it.

  5. Tracy says:

    Sorry for the late post (I’ve been offline for a while playing catch up at work), but I had to comment on your review since A Reliable Wife was probably my favorite read of last year. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it too. For me, the themes and characterizations called to mind all sorts or classic works by DuMaurier (as you mentioned), the Brontes, Shakespeare, and Thomas Hardy (the whole naturalism/betrayal aspect screamed Return of the Native). A more recent read-alike might be Serena by Ron Rash.

    My (brief) review can be seen here:
    http://www.bcplib.org/PDF/goodbooks/RR%20Lists/RR%20Winter%202009-2010.pdf

  6. I really, really liked this one, and that took me by surprise, as I start a lot of novels I don’t enjoy (and will never finish). The person above who suggested some Thomas Hardy or Ron Rash’s Serena, I think, has made some good suggestions there.

    I read it a million years ago, but all I remember is that I also didn’t expect to like it and it also had some graphic without being graphic sexuality: Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. It’s longer but I remember it being dark and really enjoyable.

  7. Pingback: Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy. « The Roy Girls Read

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