A Reliable Wife: Brilliant Concept, Troubled Execution

As much as one can 'get' a book, I didn't really get A Reliable Wife until I read the page titled 'Beholden' at the end.

Turns out, author Robert Goolrick found inspiration for A Reliable Wife through the 1973 book Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy.

This cult book is a collection of photographs from Black River Falls, Wisconsin that Lesy found dating from the 1890's. The black and white photos are eerie and grim. Stories from the paper at that time are filled with arsonists, hauntings, cases of madness and violence.

The setting in A Reliable Wife, also a small Wisconsin town, reflects this otherworldly, hellish quality, or as the jacket copy aptly puts it, "a world that seems to have gone temporarily off its axis."

Juxtaposed with Goolrick's inspiration is the frothy plot set up (reflected in the cover, a very seductive one featuring a beautiful woman in soft focus, common to glossy YA, that I admit initially drew me in).

Catherine Land has had enough of her opulent city life style - whoring, opium dens and drinking and the financial instability that comes with it. She answers a country gentleman's advertisement seeking a wife. She responds, positioning herself as a 'simple, honest woman' and after some correspondence, he sends for her. Catherine, of course, has much darker motives than he realizes and in turn, Ralph reveals himself to be just as complex and troubled.

Yet, despite the heart fluttering set-up, this book is no Jane Eyre. Catherine is no gem who rescues Ralph's soul, neither is he a tarnished hero. These are deeply flawed characters operating within the constraints of circumstance and their own desires to improve.
The ending is an appropriate mix of darkness and light; you will not feel cheated, the book does not aspire to the heights of moral excess like most romances.

However, the writing could be much stronger. Goolrick aptly conveys the intoxication of pleasure, the darkness of despair and the horrors men can inflict, the frigidity of a lonely northern town. Goolrick is plain in his language though, and occasionally repetitive; he is not a literary writer.

I wish, in short, that this book could have been more. Conversely, I am glad it was written at all. It is a powerful attempt - richly imaginative and obviously written with great respect for its premise: how sane are we really?

2 comments:

Luanne said...

I loved this book. I thought the plainess of the writing echoed Ralph's desire for ' a simple plain life" and was in keeping with his character.
I had a look at the photo essays of Wisconsin Death Trip too. Fascinating and frightening.

B.Kienapple said...

I'd love to get my hands on Wisconsin Death Trip. That may be my next buy.

The 'plain life' bit was one part of the book that did not ring true to me, for some reason. It was at complete odds with Ralph's rather maniacal nature. The whole book felt too dramatic to pretend to be plain at all and yeah, that's what I loved about it!

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