Everyone, it seems, is raving about Robert Goolrick’s novel A Reliable Wife. Sadly, I am not going to be one of those people. I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t enjoy the book; I actually liked the book quite a lot (once I got past the first dry chapter). Still, there were elements of the book that just didn’t work for me.
A Reliable Wife tells the story of Ralph Pruitt, a wealthy man who lives in Wisconsin. He’s been a widower for the past twenty years and when the story opens he is standing on the platform at the train station waiting for Catherine Land, his soon-to-be-bride. Catherine has answered Truitt’s advertisement in a St. Louis paper for ‘a reliable wife.’ It is 1907.
Not all is as it seems with these two characters, though. Each has hidden agendas and secrets galore and as I read I imagined the fantastic movie this would make. Did it make a fantastic book, though, that’s the question. Well, yes and no.
What did A Reliable Wife do well?
It gave the reader a real glimpse into the hardships and isolation of a mid-western winter. It dealt sympathetically with the novel’s central characters: Catherine and Truitt. Truitt is especially well-drawn. He is a man who selfishly chases erotic pleasures for much of his young life, returning to the family business only after his father dies. His story unfolds a little at a time, saving one last ‘secret’ for the novel’s final pages.
Catherine comes to him the supposed daughter of missionaries, but her story is actually far more sordid. It gives nothing away to say that she has come to Wisconsin to marry and then murder Truitt by way of arsenic poisoning.
What did A Reliable Wife do less well?
At a certain point in the novel I felt like everything became melodramatic. Sub-plots did nothing to advance the story. Catherine’s sister, Alice, is introduced near the middle of the book and I know it’s meant to juxtapose her life with Catherine’s, but for me it seemed tacked on. We hear tidbits of violent crimes or horrible accidents which have happened in Truitt’s community followed by the author’s statement “such things happen”, as if this explains all the wrong-doing in the world. Or, perhaps, to say that some things can’t be explained.
Ultimately, A Reliable Wife asks the question: Is it possible to be redeemed? Truitt wants to make up for what he believes is a horrible mark against him as a father. Catherine makes a decision which changes the course of her future. Other characters hold on to their anger and bitterness and suffer a more drastic fate.
There is also the question of suspense. I wouldn’t say that the book was suspenseful in the way modern readers might expect. We know from the book’s jacket that Truitt and Catherine are hiding something and so we start reading with the knowledge that not everything is as it seems. I don’t think the story is propulsive because of any so-called suspense. A lot of stuff happens and it happens at a relatively quick clip. On a few occasions (especially towards the end) I actually felt I was being told what was happening rather than watching the story unfold.
One thing that totally surprised me about this book was the amount of sex in it. These are people with very real human appetites and the book does a terrific job with sensual details of all sorts: the sex is not the fade-to-black kind. Truitt’s sexual reawakening, in particular, is impressively realistic.
All this to say that I enjoyed reading the book, but I didn’t feel totally satisfied when I’d finished.