The Bishop's Wife
With a plot that is ripped from the headlines and an insightful look into Mormon culture, THE BISHOP’S WIFE is the perfect combination of mystery and intrigue. Written by practicing Mormon Mette Ivie Harrison, the novel introduces readers to Sister Linda Wallheim, the eponymous bishop’s wife. Though Linda acts as a model wife and mother for the women of her ward, she privately questions certain behaviors she observes in her church --- especially those of the men. She also intelligently examines her role as “bishop’s wife.” Though she has no official title, she is often expected to care for the well-being of the members of her ward, acting as a sort of mother figure, with little to no recognition. Harrison sets the scene with questions such as these when readers are introduced to Jared Helm.
Jared rushes into the bishop’s home early one morning, requesting a private meeting with the bishop while Linda plays with his young daughter, Kelly. Though it is a thankless task, Linda is eager to care for the five-year-old, as she has five sons herself and once lost a baby girl. Kelly is, in her eyes, the perfect little girl: precocious, sweet and sporting a head full of blonde curls. Soon, though, Jared leaves as quickly as he arrived, making no excuse for his early morning visit. Linda’s husband informs her that Jared’s wife, Carrie, has left him without warning.
Ever the dutiful wife and mother, Linda is appalled that Carrie could leave her family like that, especially with her perfect little girl. She begins to go over the Helms’ relationship, noting that Jared was a bit, shall I say, rough around the edges. Even within their Mormon community, Jared’s beliefs veered towards the old-fashioned and misogynistic, and Linda often witnessed their effect on Carrie. Still, she cannot believe that Carrie would leave, unless something terrible had happened to her. Going against her husband’s wishes, she begins to investigate the Helms’ marriage through visits with Carrie’s family and playdates with young Kelly.
Drawing upon her knowledge of the religion, Harrison informs readers that Mormon marriages are considered eternal, meaning that if one were to separate from one’s husband in life, they would be left completely alone in death. It is no secret that many women in abusive relationships are hesitant to leave for fear of retribution, but the Mormon belief of eternal marriage further complicates the issue. Linda considers all of this while Carrie’s disappearance becomes gossip and eventually attracts police attention. Incensed by her distrust of Jared, Linda begins to further question all of the relationships in her ward, wondering which women are suffering from abuse, infertility, or any other pains that may be considered taboo within the church.
"With a plot that is ripped from the headlines and an insightful look into Mormon culture, THE BISHOP’S WIFE is the perfect combination of mystery and intrigue.... Readers will find themselves completely riveted as Linda continues her quiet investigation, only to find a new secret at every turn until the fascinating end."
Though Linda seems fortunate in her marriage to the bishop --- as he appears to value her opinions and input --- there are still times when readers will want to reach in and shake each and every one of the male characters. When news of Carrie’s disappearance breaks, for instance, Jared is quick to paint her as an unfaithful woman who suffered bouts of insanity. As Linda begins to question whether or not Jared had anything to do with the disappearance, her husband remarks that it would be “unfair” to call him an abuser without any evidence --- even as the missing and defenseless Carrie is defamed. Unfair, indeed!
Harrison does a wonderful job of inserting readers into Mormon life without seeming to exaggerate or embellish. Even when the men make questionable remarks about the temperaments and behaviors of women, it is clear that they do not believe they are being insulting, but rather reporting the facts as they are. It is easy, then, to see why Linda may become frustrated with her busy yet thankless role. Though she does not take much action to elevate the role of women, readers will appreciate her intelligent and profound inner monologue.
As the search for Carrie continues, Jared’s even more misogynistic father, Alex, comes to help him care for Kelly. He and Linda often butt heads as she attempts to chastise him for his treatment of the young girl and his opinions of women in general. Meanwhile, Carrie’s seemingly perfect parents rally for Jared’s arrest, though it remains unclear why they had close to no contact with their daughter before her disappearance. Though Linda is able to learn a great deal through her poking and prodding, readers are never quite sure who to trust and who to hate.
Alongside the mystery of Carrie’s disappearance, readers are invited to watch as Linda begins to grow as a woman. As the mother of five boys, she never really has had time for meaningful female friendships and often wonders if the other women in her ward see her as robotic and cold. At the same time, she puts other women on pedestals, quietly praising their stoicism, hard work and independence. When she finally begins to reach out to her peers, readers nearly cheer for joy. Linda is clearly a strong, intelligent woman, and it is delightful to watch her find similar traits in others as they share their stories and experiences. Her friendship with the older Anna Torstensen, for example, becomes one of the strongest relationships in the novel, exemplifying the importance of female solidarity in a patriarchal world.
Before the end of THE BISHOP’S WIFE, Linda will uncover a few more mysteries, all of which expose the darker sides of both Mormonism and the patriarchy. The knowledge that some women have gone unprotected for so long forces Linda to consider the safety of all women in her ward, young and old. All the while, she cannot help but think of the daughter she lost, wondering how she could have protected her if she had lived. The connection is very powerful, as it clearly propels Linda in her search for the truth about Carrie who, coincidentally, is about the same age that Linda’s daughter would be had she lived. Even more stunning are the careful twists and turns of Harrison’s writing. No villain in THE BISHOP’S WIFE is ever quite as evil as initially suspected and no hero ever quite as pure --- just as in real life.
Readers will find themselves completely riveted as Linda continues her quiet investigation, only to find a new secret at every turn until the fascinating end.
Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 23, 2015