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.
Filed under: book clubs, Book Reviews, books, historical fiction, reading, Reading Groups | Tagged: a reliable wife, book club, book groups, book review, fiction, historical fiction, reading, Reading Groups, robert goolrick, suspense | 42 Comments »