Monday, April 6, 2009

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick: a review

Ralph Truitt, alone for 20 years since the death of his wife and daughter, runs a newspaper ad looking for a "reliable wife" to keep him company. The ad is answered by Catherine Land who describes herself as a "simple, honest woman." But when she comes to Wisconsin late in 1907 we find that she is anything but simple or honest. Catherine has a plan for her marriage, a plan to acquire all of Ralph's wealth and share it with the young lover she has left behind in the city.

There are many secrets and plot twists in this story. In the background runs an undercurrent of desperation and despair, peppered with accounts of townspeople going crazy, killing others and themselves, with the casual commentary "Such things happen." These acts come closer and closer to the main characters, building into an inevitable climax that I found quite satisfying. The author was inspired by Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip, an account of crimes and other desperate acts in a town in Wisconsin around the turn of the century. I loved how he lifted this bit of little-known (at least to me) history and created a novel around it.

Catherine's personality was very uneven, and I found it a little confusing in some places. I had a difficult time reconciling the Catherine at Ralph Truitt's house with the Catherine in St. Louis or the pre-Truitt Catherine. Initially I thought it was just sloppy writing, but now I think it was intentional, because it added so greatly to the unpredictability of the novel. Catherine could very well do anything. Ralph Truitt wasn't without his own secrets, either, but it felt like that part of his life was a bit more firmly in the past and therefore his personality was more strongly and set.

A bit melodramatic at times, but the mystery and intrigue really made up for the novel's few shortcomings. I couldn't stop reading.

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