Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolnick

This book is everywhere. Literally everywhere. It's marketed as a cross between Rebecca and Wuthering Heights. If you loved those books, you'll hate this one.

Wealthy Wisconsin tycoon Ralph Truitt has lived alone after the loss of his first family some twenty years before. For some reason, the loneliness has finally gotten to him and so he has placed an advertisement for "a reliable wife." The book opens as he stands in the cold, waiting for the train to bring the woman who has answered his ad. We quickly learn, however, that the woman traveling to meet him has her own agenda and is not going to be what she appears to be. I guess this is supposed to be the Rebecca part of the book.

In the second chapter, we are privy to Catherine Land's thoughts, and she is not going to be "a reliable wife." There is a scam being perpetrated, and even if we aren't immediately aware of the details, it's pretty clear that she isn't planning on revealing her past as a prostitute and drug addict. So why in the name of advance planning did she get onto the train wearing her elaborate dress and all her jewels?

And it's not just that she got on a train--she was traveling in Truitt's private railroad car. A car that was staffed, presumably by Truitt's employees. Her destination is a tiny town practically in Canada. So, no chance that she'd be noticed or anything--do you think? Goolnick has her wearing her full Chicago-courtesan get-up until the conductor alerts her that they are about half an hour away from her stop. Only then does she change out of her obvious red velvet clothes and put on her simple gray dress. She also waits until then to take off her jewelry and sew it into the hem of the simple gray dress. Then she wads up the velvet and throws it out the window. Because she wants to appear to be a simple, plain woman. The better to fool Truitt into trusting her.

So why didn't she set up her disguise before she got on his train? I don't know. Goolrick doesn't know. Probably because it's much more cinematic to have her tossing expensive clothing out of the window as she approaches than it would have been for her to act sensibly. I'm not seeing this plot working out--I don't think anybody has thought this through very well.

Meanwhile, Truitt is all but sex-crazed. All he thinks about is sex, it seems: even all these people who are miserable and killing their families get to go to bed at night and have sex with each other. At least that's what Truitt thinks. And he spends a lot of pages thinking about it. Oh, and death too. Sex and death. This isn't a theme, this isn't a leitmotif--it's a summary of the whole damn .

The plot becomes increasingly obvious and unbelievable. On first meeting, Truitt immediatly notices that this woman is not the one in the photograph she sent him. (Who knew that was such an old trick?) But he's so lonely, and he can't let anybody see him as anything less than the master of every situation, so he takes her back to his house. On the way, Truitt is injured and Catherine ends up nursing him back to health--because he can't die until AFTER they are married, see, because she plans to kill him for his money and then go live happily ever after with her drug addicted lover.

How many romance novels have this happen? All of them, maybe? She nurses him through a near fatal fever, and the experience leads her to start seeing him as a human being and not just the means to an end. He recovers, and then he sits down and tells her his entire back story. In one sitting.

Rich and withholding father, religious fanatic mother. Dissolute youth spent among the prostitutes of Europe. Love at first sight in Italy, where beautiful daughters are sold into marriage for sizable dowries. Italian wife doesn't like living in frozen Wisconsin--Truitt is surprised! But blinded by love! So he builds her an expensive mansion and imports Italian builders and sculpters and music teachers and OMG she has an affair! With the Italian! And since this is what Italians do, she doesn't understand why he's so surprised and angry! So he banishes her, tells their son she died, and fails to love his son! Who ran away! But now that Truitt is going to be married, he wants his son back and he plans to send Catherine to find him!

This is where I gave up. I knew where this was going, and looking at the last two chapters I found out I was right.


Catherine finds the unloved son, and surprise surprise, he's her drug addict lover! It was all a plot they cooked up between them to get revenge on Truitt and live off his money. So the three of them live together in Wisconsin, Canada, and apparently there is a lot of sex. Badly written sex, judging from the rest of the book. There is divided loyalty and jealousy and then Catherine chooses Truitt. Which upsets Antonio (or whatever his name is) so he rapes her. Which upsets Truitt, who chases him down and beats him up. But then is sorry for it, but it's too late! Because they are standing on a frozen lake and the ice breaks and Antonio falls in and drowns! So then, Catherine and Truitt hare left to make what sense they can out of their lives and there's a hallucinatory scene where Catherine sees the ruined garden restored to glory, which I think is supposed to mean that she's pregnant and the future will be better. Or something.

What are the problems with this book? Well, I've already outlined the obvious and melodramatic plot. I've sketched the irrational behavior of the characters. So let's talk about the bad writing, which is repetitive, overblown, and boring.

Goolrick says he was inspired to write this book after reading Wisconsin Death Trip, which reported on the high death toll among 19th century Wisconsin settlers. Sure, life was hard and winters were long, but simply listing the kinds of things that happened does not make those things emotionally affecting. The first chapter is made up of multiple paragraphs like this: "Children died, babies died, women died, in childbirth, of influenza, diptheria, scarlet fever, exposure, starvation. People killed themselves, killed their children, killed their wives, killed their parents." (I'm not quoting, just mimicking the gist.) The result isn't a mounting of horror, it's numbing. You start to think the people who stayed weren't heroic--they were masochistic.

Goolnick's writing style is such a mind-numbing repetition of the same half-formed ideas and obsessions that I started to root for disaster, just to break up the monotony. I'm guessing that's how the rest of the people who lived in Wisconsin may have felt as well. Sure, tragedy is horrific, but at least it breaks up the boredom of another long winter!

In summary--I give this book a D grade, and most definitely do NOT recommend it to anybody.


Anonymous said...


Miss Moppet said...

Pity. The cover is so pretty! I hate it when a terrible book has a great cover.

Cate Ross said...

Is it worse than when a great book has a terrible cover? I mean, there are so many books in the world, if we can't judge them by their covers, we're not going to have any time to do anything!

Rupe0705rtJ_Brobst said...

人生之中,比冒險更危險的一件事:不去冒險。 ....................................................

Anonymous said...