30 October 2011

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

Were it not for a 1973 book by Michael Lesy entitled Wisconsin Death Trip, which showcased news reports and a collection of photographs that depicted the harsh Midwestern landscape and some of its residents who suffered mental illness, crime, and the claustrophobic effects of a winter that seems like it might never end, Robert Goolrick would never have found the inspiration to create a fictitious story of life in the frigid Wisconsin winter. I'll need to research Michael Lesy's book since it's clearly been influential for many. Not only has Wisconsin Death Trip been adapted into a film, there is also an album, and one of Stephen King's short stories, 1922, from the collection "Full Dark, No Stars" was also influenced by it.

It is 1907 and Catherine has arrived to Truitt, Wisconsin to marry Ralph Truitt, the namesake of the town and the man who owns everything in it. Everyone in the town works for him, and making money is both his work and his livelihood. He has no family to remember anymore, and Catherine is the start of a new life for him.

She will be his second wife, a wife he selected from hundreds of responses to an advertisement he placed in the paper. He's lived the past twenty years alone with regret, but he's always wanted a life like everyone else, a simple one in which he wakes up with a woman he loves and who loves him, and goes to sleep with her at night after making love. But this wish of a simple life may never be possible. He grew up with a religious fanatic who tormented him to show him what hell was like and he ended up marrying a woman who he caught cheating. He threw her out but kept their son, and beat him every day until he ran away.

Unbeknownst to him, Catherine isn't the innocent she's claimed to be. She brings a terrifying plan and secret that will ultimately put their arranged marriage to the ultimate challenge. While all of them are deplorable characters initially, it soon becomes clear that they are all just a product of their own difficult childhood. They've just made a sad mess of their adult lives.

At once quiet and thoughtful, exploring a different time and world, it is also loud, torrid and passionate. Frantic in its excesses of scene after scene of sex, it could be considered cheap and tasteless, the moments literally throbbing off the page with descriptions to make you blush. Instead, it provided harsh contrast to the quiet and brutal life in the wintery Midwest. Like the winter, sex is an important and symbolic part of the story. The primal passion ties Ralph's old life to his new one and while it could become tedious at times, I felt it made sense for the story's evolution.

What Robert Goolrick is trying to paint in this novel that was inspired by Wisconsin Death Trip (and I believe he succeeds) is the picture that life was extremely hard for those who suffered the Midwest winters over a hundred years ago, and that while horrible things happened, it was just part of life. The old adage of "it is what it is" seems appropriate. These tiny towns in America may have been unheard of on a map, but they carried the same tragedies as the big cities, and yet approached it with an almost quiet and clinical detachment. One spouse commits infidelity, another is murdered, and yet another family experiences a suicide. It is what it is. Funerals are attended, newspapers relay more horror, and the next day the town has yet another sad event to focus on.
For some, normal lives turned to nightmare. They starved to death in the horrible winters. They removed themselves from society and lived alone in ramshackle huts in the woods. They were found drooling and naked and were committed to the insane asylum at Mendota where they were wrapped in icy sheets and lashed with electrical currents until they could be restored to sanity and quietude. These things happened.
People either love or hate this book. I've found that when people hate it, it tends to be for one of two things (or both), which I can understand: Too much sex or choppy sentences. The argument for both is there since I thought there was a whole heck of a lot of intimacy described with everyone, but I never thought it was too much. The choppy sentences also were there, but I didn't find it troubling. In fact, there are several sections that are choppy, but actually blend fluidly. Here's an example of it, which I think works well:
They laughed. They spoke quietly, out of respect for what they know to be Ralph Truitt's failure. The train was late. They felt the snow in the air. They knew the blizzard would soon begin. Just as there was a day every spring when the women of the town, as though by some secret signal, appeared in their summer dresses before the first heat was felt, there was as well a day when winter showed the knife before the first laceration.
It's choppy, I know, but something about it resonates, particularly the comparison of when you first feel winter coming with "the knife before the first laceration."

With a marriage built on lies starting anew in a town that quietly accepts tragedy, A Reliable Wife is the stark and beautifully written story of life at the turn of the twentieth century. Taking the reader through Wisconsin and the seedy nightlife of St. Louis, Robert Goolrick's tale of two people and their hope for love, is haunting and compelling. I appreciated the writing and look forward to more from Robert Goolrick. I would recommend this in the printed version versus the audiobook, simply due to the sex. If you do listen to it, just remember to listen with your headphones on, or keep the windows up if you're in the car.

Fans of Patrick McGrath's modern Gothic stories, particularly Asylum, will like A Reliable Wife.

About the Author

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This is my final selection for the RIP Challenge. You can read more RIP reviews from other participants by clicking here.


  1. I don't think any of the other reviews I've read have been so thorough in explaining what it is about and what there is to like or not like about it! I feel like I have a much better feel for this book, and you're right, the choppy sentences I'm not so sure about but I might still be able to overlook them. I hope to get to reading this one someday!

  2. I really disliked this book for several reasons but also for a scene at the end which just felt so odd and out of place. Parts of it were pretty good, but overall, I just didn't love it. And I WANTED to! Hate that. But glad you enjoyed it.

  3. I really tried to get into this book about a year ago but ended up barely reading any of it. I found the choppy writing style very distracting. It also had an overall stark, depressing feel to it which seemed overpowering.

    Great review!

  4. Well, I will say that the author does a great job in painting a vivid picture of the times. I loved that part about the book. But I can actually be very clear about why I didn't like the book. It wasn't so much the sex, but the characters were horrible people. Ralph was a creepy perv, seriously I wouldn't want to even set eyes on the guy. The writing was choppy, but the dialogue was extremely hokey as well. I don't know, by the time I got to the end, I was so ready to get the hell away from these two! But like I said on Twitter, I am in the minority. I guess it takes all opinions!

  5. So many bloggers have loved this book. I have a good friend I've shared books with for 20 years and she told me this book reads like a soap opera. I can't decide if I should give it a try or not.

  6. I am one of the ones who loved this book, and I too did not find it choppy; I thought it was deliberately constructed to provide cadence, as you said.

  7. Great review! I want to try this book it sounds really interesting.

  8. I picked up this book as soon as it came out based on the cover and back cover description - but since then have not had any time to read it. I have read so many reviews - and like you said, most who disliked it said too much sex or choppy sentences. I still very much want to read this book - but going into it with this knowledge will help. Thanks for the review.

  9. I actually liked this book and I'm surprised that I did. The sexual part might have been necessary for the story to work. I hated everyone in the book but this worked.

    We discussed this for the MMBC a few years ago. Here are the links, if you are interested in the author's answers to our questions:


  10. I bought this one such a long time ago, and have been reading a lot of reviews on it ever since. It does sound like it's a polarizing book, but I tend to like books that are very emotionally stark and strange. I also recently bought Asylum after reading your wonderful review on it, and am thinking that perhaps I need to read them back to back. This was a really great review, and I enjoyed it. I am going to have to let you know what I think of this one when I get to it. Happy Halloween!

  11. I expected to love this one but instead it just seemed cheap and trashy. I generally don't have a problem with sex scenes, so it wasn't that specifically but just the overall feeling of the novel

  12. Jenny - Much too kind! Thanks. I sometimes get a bit wordy in reviews :) Let me know what you think when you read the book!

    picky - I think I know which scene you mean, but I'll connect with you separately to make sure I'm thinking of the same one. It definitely is a book that people love or hate; there is no in-between for this story :)

    Laurie@The Baking Bookworm - It is definitely a bleak story. No upside to this one!

    Sandy - I didn't get the sense that the dialogue was hokey, but I also enjoyed the story so I might have been forgiving on some of these aspects :) I actually thought Catherine was deplorable, but I liked Ralph more. If I could like any of them much! Catherine certainly was a tad perverted as well. I'm glad I don't know any of these characters in real life!

    bermudaonion - I could see it being considered soap opera-ish. It definitely lends itself to that with the secrets and lies aspect. If you read it, let me know what you think!

    rhapsodyinbooks - Yay, someone who liked it! :) I started to get the feeling I might be the only one. I really didn't mind the choppiness of some of the dialogue, and I felt it fit the overall style of the story and the characters, and just the sad life they were all living. Made sense to me! :)

    Mrs Q Book Addict - Do let me know if you get a chance to read this, would love to get your thoughts on it!

    dolleygurl - Thanks! Definitely be prepared for all of the sex, it is very descriptive and doesn't skimp on the primal urges for all of the characters.

    MMBC - I agree. The sex almost seemed crucial to the overall discussion of the motivating factors for each of the characters. I'll definitely check your link out, thank you for passing my way!

    Zibilee - Without question, it is definitely a polarizing book. Readers are not in-between on this at all :) It is an odd story, very sad and hopeless, full of despair...but for all of this, I liked it. Asylum also has the same lack of happiness in the book. If you read them back to back, make sure you have other distractions in your day to day that are much happier! Very depressing stories! :) Let me know what you think when you get to them.

    reviewsbylola - It definitely can come across as tasteless with the graphic descriptions of sex. It made sense to me on why they were included, and to such detail, in comparison to the contrast of life out in the middle of nowhere. And yet it also made sense because it just seemed to be part of the regular events of this town. I liked the story, but everyone has one of two reactions to it - loved it or hated it! :)

  13. Sooo I read this book almost two years ago maybe, and didn't write it up, so I'm going off memory... The choppy sentences didn't bother me a bit, but then I'm a Hemingway fan so maybe I'm immune to that. :) I don't recall the sex being especially graphic or shocking. Certainly it was a major player in the book - a character in itself, perhaps - but I don't recall it being blush-worthy. (We do all have different thresholds for these things; or maybe I just don't remember it properly.) I enjoyed the book, but don't fall into your categories of loved it or hated it, either. I appreciated the dark, bleak mood Goolrick created; I thought it was a well-made craft, and I ultimately liked it more than not, but it didn't make any all-time lists with me. All that being said, I think you wrote an excellent review! Thanks!

  14. I liked this one a lot. The sex got almost annoying to a point, but I wasn't scandalized by it or anything. Like you, I think it was simply a big part of the novel! Given the circumstances they were living in, I think it had to be!

    Great review!

  15. I need to (finally!) make time for this one. I even own it. Sheesh. Thanks for the reminder to pull it from TBR purgatory.

  16. The reviews have really been mixed with this book. I have it but have not read it yet. It always makes me want to decide for myself when the readers are split.

  17. I'm not sure why but I feel like I will be in the camp that loves this one.


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