Quite frankly, A Reliable Wife is very, very, very much not my style of book. At all. It arrived, unannounced, as a review copy in the mail and my first inclination was to not read it. However, then I read the back cover description of how this was a historical thriller about an unassuming mail bride who comes to her new husband with sinister motives. Ok, not like I have any such tendencies myself, but it did sound like a compelling story. Plus, I have to admit that this is one where the cover art did me in. I took to my bed, sick with a cold, and grabbed this one with the stack that was to keep me company while I mended. Before I knew it, I had read the whole thing. (Well, technically I did NOT read the whole thing. There are explicit sex scenes that seem to last entire chapters. I skipped two chapters outright because of it and pretty much lost all respect for the author.)
The story idea is fantastic and, indeed riveting. Catherine Land has a shady past, but presents herself the daughter of a missionary to Ralph Truitt, an elderly fellow in want of a wife. He doesn’t exactly have a clean past himself and you can hardly like him for all the things author Robert Goolrick says the man thinks about. (You do, however, end up sympathizing with him a bit.) If I were Catherine Land, I’d probably honestly want to strange the man. Her plan, however, is arsenic. The problem is, she finds herself falling for him. But there’s a twist! He wants her to convince his “prodigal son” to come home to him. He doesn’t realize that it was the prodigal son who sent her to him in the first place.
Again, for a suspense, Goolrick has a really good idea. The problem is that the book is so fouled up with dishonorable characters who express such inappropriate desires that the characters are not always pretty, admirable or attractive. Honestly. I have zero tolerance for the explicit descriptions and scenes which Goolrick felt compelled to share with the masses. In fact, I have strong objections to it. There is simply no need and it really took away from my ability to just enjoy and engage with his story. And for that reason, I feel compelled to tell you that this book is really quite trashy and I would refrain from recommending it. I am questioning why I read it. At the same time, I really think his story idea is really quite interesting. He just writes about depravity and I have a hard time with the idea that it’s acceptable, entertaining and satisfying to write this stuff out and I probably wouldn’t want to spend a great deal of time with Robert Goolrick himself in person.
One other (way more minor but still annoying) thing to point out is that the Boston Globe says that this book is a “rousing historical potboiler.” I had to re-read the descriptions of the characters and check the timeline three times and I still think Goolrick goofed but I don’t want to say so outright (just merely speculate online, of course!) but he really botched his time line. A Reliable Wife is set in 1907. Ralph Truitt is 54 years old. Catherine is said to be 20 years his junior. However, she also has memories of being with her mother at the end of the civil war (she remembers being age 7ish and has a mental image of being around soldiers from the Civil War). The civil war ended in in 1865 which makes her a little older than I think Goolrick meant. I’m not sure if that was an accident or what but as one who is interested in history, that bugged me the whole book.
NPR’s morning edition is quoted as saying that this book is both “engrossing and addictive” and it is that. It was hard not to read. It was hard to read. If it had been a movie, I would have been intrigued by the premise, but would have had to watch it with my hand on the remote. And I don’t know how much of the movie would have been left to watch.
It is disappointing to me to come across what would otherwise be an excellent spell-binding story, but has to be dramatized in such a way, for myself, that it becomes quite unreadable at points. I’m not sure what pertinent details I missed (I suspect that I did not miss much as I didn’t feel like I had missed anything in the end). I wrestled with whether to write up a review of this or not but, obviously, decided to do so because I really do think that Goolrick started off well. I just don’t appreciate the way he filled the middle. That’s a little ironic given this description of Catherine upon being introduced to her in the second chapter:
“Catherine Land liked the beginning of things. The pure white possibility of the empty room, the first kiss, the first swipe at larceny. And endings, she liked endings, too. The drama of the smashing glass, the dead bird, the tearful goodbye, the last awful word which could never be unsaid or unremembered. It was the middle that gave her pause.”
So did this book. Just not, unfortunately, for any of the right reasons.
This review, and others from the week, are linked up to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books. Link up your own review, or see those that others have published this week.