Book Review: A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, is one of those rare books that has left me simultaneously passionate about its worth and unable to communicate the depth of my admiration. I devoured it in just two days – finished it on Christmas Eve, in fact. I put off wrapping presents and preparing for the next day’s merriment, just so I could see how the last strand of this tale would be woven.

A Reliable Wife is essentially a novel about three people consumed with love, hate, passion, doubt, regret, hope, and recompense. Ralph Truitt has posted an advertisement for a “reliable wife,” and he knows immediately when Catherine Land steps off the train that she is not who she has claimed to be. Despite things seen and unseen, said and unsaid, the two of them enter into a kind of dance of motives and wills. They each have their own reasons for entering into the union, plans that are at one turn devious and then nearly sympathetic at the next.

After a horrible accident that seems to bind them together, Truitt sets his wife on a mission: he wants her to pursue his estranged son and return him to the family home. The story then becomes like a triple helix, with the three characters spiraling in and out of each other’s ultimate fates.

Author Robert Goolrick tells this story is such lush opposites, I felt myself willingly pulled in so many directions. Love/hate, greed/sacrifice, opulence/squalor, life/death, madness/clarity – it’s all here, and sometimes in the same person. Nothing is quite as it seems, and Goolrick masterfully unfolds each layer of the story in pitch-perfect timing. There are definite elements of mystery and suspense, creating a very “atmospheric” story (which I think is one of the reasons it has been compared to Wuthering Heights and Rebecca).

I will stipulate that there is a good deal of sexual content in this book, and some of it leaning towards a graphic nature. There were passages (pages, really) that detailed Ralph’s sexual fantasies of Catherine, and I did find myself saying out loud, “Ok, ok, I get it!” Still, the difference for me in this book was that the sexual content wasn’t sensationalized or included to generate indiscriminate book sales. It really had everything to do with how these characters related to each other, their past, and themselves, and it was part of the seduction of the book and the way Goolrick clouded the lines between the characters’ motives and actions. I was able to expand my comfort zone enough to include the sexual content, but other readers may not feel that way.

Finally, there is a scene in the book that reminds me so much of my experience reading it. Ralph has brought Catherine to his remote home in the Wisconsin wilderness, a winter landscape blanketed with snow. Catherine cannot go in to town, has no visitors, and has little to occupy her time, so she spends much of it simply looking out the window. The unforgiving glare of the snow is blinding, though, so she asks Ralph for some sunglasses. Ralph tells her to just not look out the window, to spare herself the discomfort. But Catherine cannot help but look – there is nothing else to do. For me, reading this book had that same pull – my world disappeared, and I could not help but keep reading. Some parts were disturbing, and I didn’t know how it would ultimately end, but I felt compelled to brave any discomfort and remain committed to the end. It was worth every minute of it (and more).

Many sincere thanks to Brittany at Algonquin Books for this Advance Reader’s Copy.

Book details:

Publisher: Algonquin Books
Format: (ARC)
Publish Date: 03/31/09
Pages: 304

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