April 20, 2009

BOOKS: A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick (2009)

It's a cold Wisconsin day in October 1907, and Ralph Truitt waits for the train that will bring Catherine Land, the woman who has answered his newspaper advertisement searching for "a reliable wife." It's clear almost immediately that both Ralph and Catherine are strong-willed people, and that each has an agenda that goes beyond a simple arranged marriage. But affairs of the heart never go quite as one plans them, even when one doesn't actually plan to involve the heart at all.

Goolrick's novel is a wildly overheated tale of passion, lust, vengeance, conniving, and longing. The story is almost too loopy to be believed, built as it is on a series of wild coincidences, and Goolrick's prose leans to the absurdly melodramatic. (Remembering a perfect childhood day, Catherine thinks, "The sun set every day. It could not be that it would set in splendor only once in her lifetime.") But the three principal characters -- Ralph and Catherine are eventually joined in Wisconsin by the piano-playing cad from St. Louis, Tony Moretti -- are so vividly drawn, and their emotional lives so real despite Goolrick's excesses, that A Reliable Wife kept me turning the pages. It can be an infuriating novel, and there will be moments when you want to toss it across the room, but there's something weirdly compelling in its delirium, and I'm glad to have read it.

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