A Reliable Wife
Upon reading the opening chapters of Robert Goolrick’s debut novel, A RELIABLE WIFE, you might for a moment think that you’ve read this one before. It’s 1907, and a wealthy Wisconsin widower, Ralph Truitt, is waiting at the local train station for his mail-order bride to arrive by rail from Chicago. It’s the classic theme of historical romance novels, right? Think again. What Goolrick has concocted here is a compelling and deep novel that sheds a harsh light on the warped desires, passions and obsessions of all its main characters.
You see, Ralph Truitt isn’t just some kindly old widower looking for a second chance at love. He’s a jilted husband who flew into a murderous rage after his wife left him, a guilt-ridden old man who feels doomed to a life of frustration, pain and brutal disappointments. He is surrounded by wealth and beauty but can enjoy or appreciate none of it. He has picked out the plainest, most reliable-looking woman out of the dozens who applied to his newspaper advertisement, hoping that a “normal” relationship with her might be his chance to atone for past sins.
But the woman who emerges from the railway car is nothing like her picture, or what Truitt was expecting or hoping for. She’s beautiful, for one thing. And, as readers learn as they witness Catherine Land’s transformation during her railway journey, she’s neither innocent nor pure nor exactly reliable. She’s a chameleon, a woman whose long and sordid history has taught her how to change herself effortlessly to match others’ whims: “She never stopped to wonder which self was her true self and which one was false.” In this case, Catherine has modeled herself to be the kind of wife she thinks Truitt wants.
Not surprisingly, when two people’s inner lives and past histories are so divorced from their outward appearance, Catherine and Truitt’s courtship and marriage are neither straightforward nor exactly romantic. But when Truitt asks Catherine to help him track down and bring home his wayward son, Antonio, from his first marriage, the depths of Catherine’s deceptions and Truitt’s past wrongdoings become violently clear.
Erotic, brutal and very, very dark, A RELIABLE WIFE is the kind of Gothic novel that the Brontë sisters would have written had there been no Victorian sanctions against writing frankly about sex. There are madwomen, and men, aplenty here, all driven to violence and despair thanks to desires thwarted or warped beyond recognition. Both the smothering snow of northern Wisconsin and the opulent debauchery of St. Louis (where Catherine goes to find Antonio) seem to engender damaged people, in one place because sexual desire is so suppressed, in the other because it is too freely given. Throughout the book, Goolrick gives readers brief glimpses into other, anonymous lives destroyed, even as he fully spins out the seemingly fatalistic narrative of Catherine and Truitt’s relationship to its surprising conclusion, giving the impression that their tragic, twisted story is just one of countless tales just like it.
Relentless and almost compulsively absorbing, A RELIABLE WIFE will send chills down your spine even under the warmest eiderdown comforter.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011
A Reliable Wife
- Publication Date: March 31, 2009
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 291 pages
- Publisher: Algonquin Books
- ISBN-10: 1565125967
- ISBN-13: 9781565125964