Not Feeling the Love for A RELIABLE WIFE

In which I rip on a book everyone loves…

Disclaimer:  This is not a review, just rambling.  I’m not trying to be a literary critic, just a reader who didn’t care for a popular book.  I know many people will disagree with me.

When A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick was suggested and then voted in as my book club’s selection for March, I was so excited.  Having seen the buzz on the book blogs last year, my expectations were pretty high.

I thought it would be a dark story set in a bleak environment.  It was.  I assumed the setting would play a role on the psyche of the characters.  It did.  Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I couldn’t wait to find out.

Well.  Let’s just say this book is not for everyone.  I did not love it; in fact I found parts of it silly.  I’m clearly in the minority, so maybe it’s me.

Ok, so to bring you up to speed in case you haven’t read the book, there is Ralph Pruitt, a wealthy man in frozen-over Wisconsin living in a town named for his family.  He’s lived alone for 20 years with no love in his life and no family.  He owns everything and everyone works for him.  He advertises for a reliable wife and Catherine Land has answered his ad.

Catherine, we know immediately (from the back of the book and in the very beginning), is anything but honest.  She’s playing a role.  She flings her red velvet dress out the window of the train headed for Wisconsin and dons a basic black wool dress, more appropriate for an honest, sensible woman.  She has tiny blue bottles of liquid that she keeps with her.  She sews gems into the lining of her dress.  She’s up to something.

We find out soon enough that Ralph had another family, years ago.  He has an estranged son, Tony (or Andy, or some form of Antonio) from his first marriage.  Ralph made him pay for the sins of his mother and feels guilty for the way he treated him.  That guilt is the driving force of the story.

So it sounds good, right?  These aren’t really spoilers, mind you.  All of this unfolds very early on, and I’ll admit I was hooked.  I knew something was up- there were big red flashing signs all over the place- it was just a matter of what.  The book got off to a great start.  I wanted to know what would happen.

But then a lot of things went wrong, for me.  Without giving anything away, let’s just say Ralph sends Catherine on a big errand- which is the entire reason he needed a reliable wife.  My question, for those who’ve read the book, is why?  Why would he need to get married to do this?  Why did he need her to do this particular task?  Couldn’t he have paid one of the many townspeople who answered to him?  He had buckets of money.. there was no other way?

And Tony.  He also sends Catherine on an errand.  Why couldn’t he accomplish his mission on his own?  Couldn’t he have carried out his personal vendetta without her?

Yes, these men were using Catherine for their own purposes.  But please don’t feel bad for her, for she is a lying, murderous, despicable person who I thought at times was becoming a decent human but really wasn’t.  She had me fooled more than once.

There were some gaping plot holes and unexplained motivations and some head-scratcher stuff.  There was some laughable, silly dialog.  I found myself thinking, “That’s dumb” or “WTF?” a number of times.

The destructive, deceitful, selfish, sexually fixated characters were disturbing- and this book has three of them.  And I’m generally ok with dark and disturbing.   But then there were long looooong passages about sexual obsession that were a complete yawnfest.  It’s a sad day when reading about sex is boring, but the lengthy descriptive paragraphs were icky and tedious and I found myself doing a lot of skimming.

Another thing that was creepy and odd was Ralph’s obsession with people in town going mad and killing themselves or their families.  Apparently all that Wisconsin snow during the long hard winters made them crazy. Why was he so fascinated with sex, money, his long lost son, and tragic stories, to the exclusion of all else?

Ralph seemed so pathetic to me.  He did not seem like a powerful, wealthy tycoon so much as a passive old man.  Catherine, with her little blue bottles, is not a loving wife, and he knows it, and he does not care.  In fact, he welcomes her betrayal, allowing it to happen and even hastening it’s progression.  She’s aware that he knows, and everyone is acting like it’s perfectly ok.  And I did not understand that.  Why would he resign himself to that fate, willingly?  Somebody smarter than me, help me out.  Was it because he thought Andy/Tony would never come home?  And if that’s the reason, could he think of nothing else to live for (regular sex, perhaps, after the 20 year drought?)

There was a ton of repetition.  Like the phrase “such things happened”.  And I found the imagery of birds tedious.  Also the imagery of water- at first I thought the author was doing something kind of cool and subtle with the imagery, but after the 5th description of something being like water, or another mention of a bird (the heart beating like a bird, her hands fluttering like birds, “welcome home” sex like the singing of a bird, and the bird in the cage, and the bird in the garden..) I was rolling my eyes.  Again, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t need to be beaten over the head with imagery (or feathers) to get the meaning.

The whole scenario seemed vaguely familiar to me.  The frozen tundra, the long-suffering and wealthy bachelor with a haunted past, the beautiful woman with secrets of her own..  where have I read this before?  An old dusty classic from high school, perhaps?  I couldn’t place it but it had a very familiar feel.

So tonight is our book club meeting, and I cannot wait to see what everyone else thought about A Reliable Wife.  Someone else is leading the discussion tonight and I’m guessing she’s done a little research.  I’m going to sit back with my mouth closed and let the meeting unfold before I say a word about my impressions.  Maybe I will learn something and be enlightened.  Maybe I’ll see the error of my “analysis,” such as it is.  Maybe I’ll be the only one who doesn’t think the book is amazing and brilliant.  Or maybe not.

I’ll let ya know.

41 Responses

  1. I just finished it this weekend with the exact opposite reaction you had! For me the entire novel was about extremes — extreme passion, extreme hatred, extreme cold etc. I think that Ralph’s reasoning behind needing a wife was because he didn’t think that Antonio would ever come home unless there was someone else to diffuse the emotion. He needed to create some kind of semblance of normalcy, some kind of happiness, to make it work. I think by the time he realizes who Catherine is and what she is doing, after he receives the letter from the private detectives, he is too depressed at his failure to bring back his son that he doesn’t care anymore and the small bit of happiness he gets from being with Catherine is enough to sustain him until he dies, but no longer.

    I didn’t notice the overbearing imagery, but I’m sure now that you’ve mentioned it and I read it again I would notice it. I just wrote about this book in my Sunday Salon, actually about the negative reviews of it. I think you’ll like what I have to say.

    • Maybe the appearance of normalcy by having a wife was a good motivation for the AD, but not for sending her on the ‘errand’, KWIM? He could have paid ANYone to do his bidding, meanwhile making a more normal home while that was happening. The PI’s could have said, “Your father is happily married and wants you to come home” or some such thing.

      And wouldn’t you say that generally humans have a survival instinct? Shouldn’t that have kicked in?? Unless he was suicidal- but he didn’t seem depressed to me, as he was ravishing her after being away..

      • Mrs. Larsen would have been a good one to send, come to think of it. She knew him as a boy and she’d do basically anything for Ralph. Why would some stranger lady he married yet barely knew be willing to do this kind of thing for him? Seems like an awful lot to ask of a person.. esp. a woman in those days.

    • Ralph marries Catherine and sends her to do his bidding for 2 reasons:
      1) as a plot device to carry the story
      2) realistically had Ralph–or even the housekeeper–gone for the son, he wouldn’t have come. Remember, the “son” hated Ralph and would never have listened to him. The idea, of course, is that b’cause Ralph knows in advance re Catherine’s relationship with the son, he uses her to entice the son. They are a greedy duo, and I’m guessing that Ralph counts on that.

      If you want to address a flaw, you should ask yourself how he would know that Catherine would answer the advertisement with her cousin’s picture. Behind the scenes–could have laid the groundwork through the detective agency (how he knows about Catherine in the first place).

      But ya know, sometimes when you read a gripping story, and it is a gripping story, you have to agree to “suspend your disbelief.”

      I think it’s fun to imagine what ifs–what if the story had ended with the poisoning–maybe a Stephen King scenario? What if the story had been told from another perspective?

      For me the novel’s stringent, austere (and repetive) language becomes a character.

      I loved the book. Loved the structure. Loved how the author developed the plot. Loved how he rounded out the characters. Loved, especially, the language. Almost makes me want to read the memoir–and I’m not into memoirs.

  2. I love getting different perspectives. You are right, the reputation of this book precedes it. I actually won a signed copy, but donated it to my Literacy event, thinking I would have to buy it back. Now I’m rethinking that decision. I’ll be sure and watch for an update on how the book club felt!

  3. I have heard some mixed reviews about this book. It is on my wish list, but just not at the top. I want to read it because want to know if I will like it or not. I feel the same way about the Postmistress. I have heard some really good reviews and then some less than stellar. I have the audio of that one and will have to see. Sometimes the hype is just that, hype. Sometimes it just comes down to personal preference.

  4. I’m about to read this book as well. I’ve heard mixed reactions from the start, but now this makes me want to read it even more.

  5. I haven’t read this one but I plan to read it sometime this year. I think books with too mych hype usually fall flat but that’s just me.

    • I know what you mean. It’s like everyone drank the Koolaid and decided this was the best book ever.. I feel like the little boy who noticed the Emperor has no clothes! Wow am I mixing my metaphors this morning.. LOL

  6. This is exactly why I haven’t picked this one up yet although it’s on my shelf. Some love it, some don’t. I know I’ll eventually give it a try and see what I think but sometimes all the differing opinions make me nervous. lol.

    • Me too. I wouldn’t have read it for that reason if not for my book club selecting it. I hate to be one of the few blogger voices saying, “I didn’t get it” and “Brilliant, schmilliant.”

  7. The characters were enough to get me involved, but the sex thing was really overdone and boooring. Sad when sex is utterly silly and repetitious.

  8. I didn’t love this book, but I didn’t have the same reaction. I liked how dark and twisted it was. I especially liked the end.

    • Twisted.. yes, it was that.

      When you say you especially liked the end, do you mean the very end? Where they are in the garden and Ralph basically says, “I knew everything anyway, come in the house”? Or Antonio’s end?

  9. I’ve put off reading this because a good friend of mine (we’ve been sharing books for 18 years) told me she thought it read like a soap opera. She didn’t care for it much, either, and I know her taste is similar to mine.

  10. I couldn’t agree more with you and I thought I was the only one who didn’t love it!

  11. Lisa, this seems to be the book of the moment. Or one of them. Thank you for your very honest review. I did enter a contest to win this book, but now I am not too sure I really want to read it (shhhh!).

  12. I’ve got this one on my Kindle but haven’t read it yet. I’ll still get to it at some point but your review makes me think I can wait a bit longer!

  13. This is a wierd book! The only thing I liked about it, if I have to say something is that is it unique. I’m still thinking about how uncomfortable I felt reading it. I wouldn’t have read it if not for book club.

  14. I’m so sorry to hear this because I recently bought this book after getting bitten by all the hype! It sounds as though it was heavily executed and that there were a lot of parts that just didn’t make sense. After reading your review I will probably move this down on mount TBR and when I do read it, I will go into it with open eyes. Sorry to hear how much this one disappointed you, it sounds like a less than pleasant reading experience!

  15. Dawn didn’t care for it either, and after I read her review I had no desire to pick it up.

  16. I received an unexpected copy of this book a few months ago, but I’ve seen mixed reviews, mainly due to the overdone sex, so I’m putting off reading it for a bit. I appreciate your honest thoughts and like a balance of opinion when it comes to popular books.

    –Anna

  17. I’ve heard plenty of people who didn’t care for this book, so I don’t think you are alone. I think I’ll skip reading it myself.

  18. I did NOT like this book at all, though I had been extremely excited to read it due to all the hype. I’ve been pretty lucky with reading some fabulous books so far this year (The Help, The Postmistress) and The Reliable Wife just couldn’t end fast enough for me. My MIL just finished reading it last week and felt the same way that you and I did about it. Good thing it didn’t take too long to read it. 🙂

  19. Yours is not the first negative review I’ve read of this book, but it is the one that finally pushed me to delete it from my to-read list in goodreads. The aspects you didn’t like are aspects that would make me not like a book either.

  20. I’ve heard both good and bad about this book, so that’s why it still sits on the shelf for me.

  21. I had some trouble with the very long passages about sexual obsessions because I just found them so unnecessary. Clearly written by a man. It’s definitely not a book for every one and I doubt I would recommend it for a book club. Definitely dark, definitely unlikable characters.

  22. I am sooo relieved to read your opinion of this book. I read it as an ARC, last year, and I thought the first 50 pages were marvelous — beautiful writing, hints of exciting things to come, a rocking fine action scene (the accident) and then . . . ugh. It was such a dreary read, after that. I didn’t like the fact that one was inside the characters’ heads and yet they didn’t even seem to know what they were thinking. I felt a little used, being tugged around like that.

    And, of course, the sex couldn’t just be regular old sex for the joy of it, as you mentioned — everything was evil and twisted in the minds of the main characters. I just reread my review and I think I was almost too kind. When I remember the book, I do so with a shiver. It was way too dark for me.

  23. I will chime in with my two cents too…didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. Read it for my book club and really felt it had potential but after the first third of the book, I too was disappointed. I think the author was trying too hard to write a book that he could base his obsession on from the book “Wisconsin Road Trip” which deals with a winter of death, disease and depression in a small midwest town in the middle of winter in the 1800’s. Unfortunately his attempts at depicting the isolation, madness, death and depression ended up being too fragmented, lacked depth or plausibiity. I wouldn’ ‘t necessarily tell you not to read it but if there are others on your TBR list don’t bump this one to the top. I think the author had a troubled life and tends to be attracted to the morbid because of it. I think he is writing a tell all autobi. Maybe that might be one to read??

  24. Weirdly enough, your review just made me want to read this one even more than I did. Now I am curious to see whether I’ll be annoyed or if I’ll greatly enjoy it. I received it not so long ago and had no intention of reading it soon, but maybe I will!

  25. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who didn’t like this book! I completely agree with a lot of your impressions and I couldn’t believe that this is such a popular book. To each their own, I guess.

  26. I love reading such an honest review of a book. I’ve often read a book that has had rave reviews and found myself bored, then wondering…what the heck? Why was it rated to highly. I guess “hype” is a great word for it…have they forgotten about honest reviews?

  27. I so glad I found a place to register my complete disgust at the book. I am actually mad that I finished reading this drawn out piece of verbose, repetitive and did I mention, boring work. None of the characters had any endearing qualities. The setting was dreary and the plot twists were stupid. I seriously considered writing the reviewers on the back flap of the book to ask what the heck they were thinking when they stated this would be a good read. More aptly … “A COLOSSAL WASTE OF TIME.” The only thing good about this book was the title.

  28. Not liking this novel at all, I eagerly looked up its reviews online only to find glowing critiques…at first. But underneath all the fanfare (some was artificially created by guns-to-their-temples Borders booksellers), I discovered a den of like-minded readers like myself who hated this book. The writing style was so pretentious that it got in the way of the mildy interesting plot. The repetious prose, considered by some to be “poetic” (!), was just plain irritating to read after a short while. Given all the struggling writers waiting to be discovered, is this really the best that our editors today can recommend?? We have a problem.

  29. I am with you on this one. Fount it repetitive, contradictory, and unappealing, for so many reasons. I still don’t understand the hype on this one, although many bloggers that I really respect liked it a lot.

  30. I loved the book. I loved the old fashioned Gothic novels this book has been compared to. It was an intense story – like the setting (winter in Wisconsin.) I think every aspect of the book fit together. The author did rave on about Ralph Truitt’s sexual obsesssions, repititious but real – how else could you understand the man? Not that you would necessarily like him – but I think he is more like most men than not – they just don’t tell us what’s going in their heads. I think the book showed Catherine growing – she thought she was in control of her life all the years before she met Ralph – but she realized, through the events, that her life could be different. I got pretty aggravated with her for not letting go of Tony sooner – but the plot needed that. And this is a story – a rollicking ride of extremes without knowing where you’re going to end up. I think Catherine’s realization, that the best part of life is in the middle, is timeless. Did you know that when you were in high school or your twenties? I may be older than you because this seems like a huge “ah – ha” to me at my age. It is not a gentle read, but an entertaining one.

  31. I’m so happy I found your review! I just finished putting together my own review and, out of curiosity, decided to check the Google book blog search engine to see if I was the only one who didn’t like A Reliable Wife. After skimming review after glowing review, I came across yours, and I am relieved that I am not alone. So thanks for putting your dissenting opinions out there!

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