Recently published March 2009 by Algonquin Books
It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet.
As Robert Goolrick’s phenomenal new novel A Reliable Wife opens, it is fall 1907, and the first hints of a cruel midwestern winter are already in the air as Ralph Truitt, a wealthy 54-year-old businessman from Wisconsin, stands on the platform at the train station, waiting to meet the woman who will soon be his wife. A bachelor for almost twenty years, Truitt does not live like the rich man he is. Everyone knows him, and almost everyone in town depends on him and his businesses in some way, but he is close to no one. He needs very little. But he is tired of being alone.
After many years of suppressing his hunger and longing, of watching people move about town and being fascinated by the knowledge that, in private, they share intimacies he may never know again, Truitt has decided he wants a wife. And he is not used to the feeling.
Now he wanted something, and his desire startled and enraged him.
So now, here he is, standing in the cold, waiting for a train that is running late, ignoring the prying eyes of the townspeople who all know who he is waiting for and are not trying to hide their interest. Here here is, waiting to meet Catherine Land, the self-described “simple honest woman” who answered his ad.
“Country businessman seeks reliable wife. Compelled by practical, not romantic reasons.”
The woman who comes off the train is not the woman in the picture Catherine sent to Truitt, and he is unsure of how to respond. With the eyes of his neighbors watching him closely, Truitt knows he has no choice but to take her home and go on with it, but he wants her to know that he is not easily fooled.
This begins in a lie. I want you to know I know that.
Any relationship that begins with a lie is bound to be complicated, and this is no exception. We quickly learn that Catherine is capable of much more than she initially appears to be, as she has come to Truitt with the intention of poisoning him and taking his money. And, as we learn of the “practical, not romantic reasons” behind Truitt’s desire for a wife, it becomes clear that he, also, has something more than marriage in mind.
Neither of these people is what they appear or pretend to be. They are driven by dark, secret desires. They have troubled pasts. They are trying to atone for their mistakes and meet their own selfish ends. And they are hungry for connection. Goolrick reveals that both Catherine and Truitt have disturbing relationships with sexuality, in which the difference between love and desire is not always clear. Truitt’s fantasies indicate that he wants not to connect but to consume, and Catherine seems to have forgotten about the beauty of tenderness and comfort. Neither of them knows what love is anymore.
If love drove people mad, what would lack of love do? It would, thought Ralph, produce me. It has…
…He knew neither how to love nor how to desire, in any real way.
As his story quietly unfolds, Goolrick explores the difference and tension between love and desire—and their various effects—with skill and insight. He gives us characters who are complex, conflicted, and painfully human, and he reveals their secrets with the kind of slow, gradual uncovering that exemplifies gothic literature. He writes about longing and desire and hunger and sexuality and the dark thoughts most of us are afraid to give voice to, and he does so with confidence and grace. Goolrick doesn’t need flashy tricks and gimmickry. He doesn’t need melodramatic revelations and shocking turns. He has real people in a real, confusing, ever-evolving, and complex relationship, and he knows exactly what to do with them.
A Reliable Wife is an impossible-to-put-down pageturner that is compelling and authentically suspenseful. It explores the concepts of love, deception, betrayal, and pain and the often surprising intricacies of marriage, and it is beautifully written. In language that is strong and spare, Goolrick gives descriptions of the harsh midwestern landscape that call to mind Willa Cather’s depictions of the prairie and that perfectly reflect his characters’ experiences. He makes the landscape an integral character in, not just a backdrop for, the story, and he does so to great effect.
To top it off, he even includes a wonderful passage about books, describing the days Catherine spends in the library.
She loved the smell of the books from the shelves, the type on the pages, the sense that the world was an infinite but knowable place. Every fact she learned seemed to open another question, and for every question there was another book.
A Reliable Wife is a book about despair and longing and emptiness, but it is also about possibility and hope and the unexpected ways that we connect with each other and are affected by our connections. It is literary, with well-developed characters and a fascinating plot, and it just might have the makings of a modern-day classic. 4.5 out of 5.
Visit the author’s website to learn more.