Yesterday I finished reading A Reliable Wife (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009) by Robert Goolrick, an author new to me. The cover, charming as it is, seems a mismatch, being somewhat old-fashioned and quaint looking. The only hint at the heat between the novel's covers is the red bird in flight. Yes, this book sizzles. Set in Wisconsin circa 1907, it takes that hackneyed plot premise of the mail order bride meeting her husband-to-be, and stands it on its ear. The prose at times rings with shades of Garcia-Marquez or Alice Hoffman: touches of magical realism. Also there is a darkness here not unlike Edgar Allan Poe. And for its eroticism, hints of Anais Nin or Henry Miller.
To say that the characters are obsessed is putting it mildly. One after another, they fall prey to sexual obsession, to grand passions and secret longings. How the author does this without turning to purple prose is amazing. For me, the writing showed bold strength and originality. The prose was so sharp, I felt pin-prickly. I felt the characters were walking on ice. Reading it was pure torture, and I mean that as a compliment. Was it just me? I made the mistake of looking at a few online reviews not long after I started the book, and ran right into a plot spoiler. I hate when that happens.
Other than reading blurbs or brief reviews to help me find books I want to read, I prefer reading substantial reviews after I've read a title. I don't want to be overly prepared or hyped. Yet sometimes certain books have such a buzz, you can't avoid knowing a lot about it before you crack it open. After my tortuous, oddly pleasurable, slightly uncomfortable journey through A Reliable Wife, I turned to Amazon for their customer reviews, an indulgence not unlike an online book discussion group. Let the people speak! And they always do on Amazon.com.
People either loved it or hated it. Most readers appreciated the ride and found it hard to put down. But some found it to be pulp fiction or quite over the top. Here is the annotation I wrote for the book when I logged onto the Harris County Public Library's adult summer reading site, ReaderNation:
Wisconsin, 1907. A wealthy, broken-hearted man named Ralph Truitt stands in the bitter cold awaiting the arrival of a train. Having advertised for “a reliable wife”, he dares to hope that two decades of loneliness are over. Catherine Land rides the train towards him, at one point changing from flamboyant clothes to plainer ones. Also she sews her jewels into the hem of her simple dress. She is not who she advertised herself to be. The pages that follow stitch their two lives together into a sensuous tapestry of obsession, jealousy, passion, fear and love. Brilliantly crafted, a page-turning romantically tragic literary thriller. Not for the tame of heart.
I hope some of you will leave comments here when you read the book. I'm looking forward to hearing what my fellow Lariat list librarians have to say about it when we get together later in the summer at TLA's Annual Assembly.