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A Reliable Wife (Algonquin Paperbacks)Regular readers of my blog will perhaps have noticed an antiquarian tendency to my reading. I’m drawn to the books of other eras, books with a past and an influence. However, I wish to read widely and so make occasional forays into modern fiction. The results, though uneven (wasting time on Sophie’s World, bailing on Infinite Footnotes, etc), have nevertheless given me reason to keep trying. My latest sampling of the modern scene being Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife, an historical thriller that came out in 2009, made a big splash and polarized readers into those who enjoyed it and those who hated its bleak and depressing guts.

The setting: Turn of the Century. An inhospitable Wisconsin winter and the seedy side of St. Louis.

The cast: Ralph Truitt, a wealthy, middle-aged, repressed sex addict; Catherine Land, a whore trying to make good through a little black widowing; and Antonio Moretti, unrepentant wastrel and Truitt’s very estranged son.

The plot: Catherine comes to Truitt as a mail-order bride. She plans to poison him. He plans to use her to lure his son home. That’s just for starters. Goolrick tackles a big can of worms with this novel, always in over-the-top fashion. With a trio of fuck-ups like that at its core, sexual politics boil straight down to the user and the used. There are guilts past and present, vendettas and a religious obsession with sin that lead the characters into private hells – lack of feeling, cold-blooded murder with wealth the dazzling prize and always the underlying death wish. Catherine becomes two men’s pawn and asset in a love triangle without the love, yet “love” always on the tip of everyone’s tongue, a mysterious force they’d all like to catch though knowing it’s too late. He wanted to be in love, but he knew that love, now, for him, was something that happened to other people. Now that’s a delicious brew. It is definitely played for drama though, despite the gothic thriller themes.

Goolrick labored over the story for some years and much of the plotting is excellent. He does play it coy, blatantly misleading in the text, which I found somewhat annoying, as it kept what twists there are from fitting seamlessly into the narrative as previously told. Otherwise, the main trio are given watertight Freudian excuses for their worst impulses, all three born to privileged circumstances only for Catherine and Moretti to be traumatically severed from it. Meanwhile, Truitt was raised by a religious maniac and got his psyche twisted into a corkscrew he then spent twenty celibate years working to straighten. The sympathy and chances at redemption Goolrick treats his characters to stands in stark contrast to stuff like Therese Raquin but that kindheartedness, combined with his focus on romance-novel levels of beauty and attractiveness (without the proper levels of decay to balance it out) are what kept A Reliable Wife from the heights of gothic glory it could easily have reached otherwise. Far from being too dark, I found it a bit lighter than I was hoping for.

And here’s the problem with the book: it’s doomed to satisfy no one. Catherine, Truitt and Moretti are not just victims. They cause their own misery and foist suffering onto others. Readers looking for a human-interest drama, a romance or just a fun bodice-ripper will (and have) been put off by the unrelentingly dismal shenanigans. Others who aren’t afraid of the dark will be disappointed that the cast never go at it with hammer and tongs, that it continually pulls its punches. So it goes too far and not far enough. Individual scenes stunned me (Catherine’s hunt for and meeting with Alice, the effects of arsenic taking hold of Truitt or Catherine’s hallucination at the end) and the plot certainly compelled but it never came together as I’d hoped. But maybe that’s just Hollywood pigeonholing at work. It doesn’t hinge on twists or revelations but on moral choice. The themes are of the hardship of life and the lessons we learn or don’t learn from it; how no one can save anybody else or set them on a path to better things if they don’t actually want to be saved. It’s grim stuff, rooted in realism. Her father died of drunkenness, of course. He drank himself to death, but Catherine secretly knew he died of a broken heart. It happens. She knew it and she watched it, and it wasn’t pretty or romantic and sad. It was pathetic and ungainly and hard as horses pulling a wagon through the mud.

As for the writing style, it varies. The dialogue is eternally stiff, to go with the character’s numbed levels of endurance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it seems off-pitch. The narration is deliberately repetitive and dwells on frozen details from first page to last, to similar results. The opulent attractions of Truitt’s abandoned (but still pristine) mansion had my eyes glazing over but elsewhere the same narrow-focus style proved hypnotic, such as Catherine’s research into gardening and the light that it promises if anyone can make it to spring: She described the splendors that would come with the summer, the roses and the clematis and the calla lilies and the cheerful dark-eyed daisies. She cataloged the Latin names she had learned. She described the rich fragrance that would come in the night air through the open windows. She would paint every leaf, every flower for him in color, and he would lie, eyes closed, and wonder if he would live long enough to see it. Truitt’s stoic melancholy and embrace of martyrdom make him the most sympathetic of the trio and his off-balance mentality dominates the atmosphere of A Reliable Wife, both in his fixation on sex and his equal obsession with every “Wisconsin Death Trip” style suffering and fatality that blows up over each long, soul-scorching winter. There is a lot of sex in this novel but it’s handled extremely well, neatly sidestepping vulgarity, lusts propelled by very strong emotions and desires. Apparently it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and it’s a constant, so some would be better off giving it a miss.

And I am left ambivalent by my own expectations (the marketing team didn’t help me there). This is a drama of despair and potential salvation, not a psychological thriller. That’s Goolrick’s choice but I wish he’d done more with such a smashing premise. Toward the end of the book Moretti meets Truitt and what happens (or rather doesn’t) goes against Moretti’s previously established character. Far from the gloves coming off, much of the finale has all three declawed. The timing of their behavior seems off so that the final act of violence comes across as random rather than perfectly fitting. My biggest problem with A Reliable Wife is that vivid though it is, it never entirely came alive, either in the cast or the historical setting. I read it swiftly but despite having all the right ingredients, I never got lost in it. I’m not sure I can recommend it to others, though I’d like to, based on the themes if not always their treatment.

What I most appreciated were many of the “extraneous” details – the garden, the scarlet bird, the near-erotica level of sex, the nameless Wisconsin residents and their terrible crimes (I will be seeking out Wisconsin Death Trip, which Goolrick used as his main inspiration). There’s nothing’s wrong with a partially successful book and if you like the sound of it despite the negatives, you can take the chance. It’s flawed but strongly flavored.

Robert Goolrick

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