Robert Goolrick

"A Reliable Wife"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew MAR 28, 2009)

"It was just a story. It was just a story of people, of Ralph and Emilia and Antonio and Catherine and the mothers and fathers who had died, too soon or late, of people who hurt one another as much as people can do, who had been selfish and not wise, and had become trapped inside the bitter walls of memories they wished they had never had.

"It was just a story of how the bitter cold gets into your bones and never leaves you, of how the memories get into your heart and never leave you alone...."

Imagine traveling to look into the eyes of your older husband-to-be for the first time. Yours is a past you will hide from him. You are plotting an awful, lethal scheme to boot. But your first order of business will be to make this man, this stranger, yours. You want him to believe that you are his, that he can touch you and kiss you and that you'll move "under him as gentle as water, as warm as a bath." You want him to be in love with you, obsessed with you, willing to make love to you "the way he might gentle a wild horse." Your course is plotted, you think as you stare unseeingly out the window of the moving train....

Robert Goolrick's title, A Reliable Wife, suggests a sedate but stalwart tale about a woman who is the same. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century -- 1907 in this case -- the rural Midwest still had the feel of indomitable wilderness. Winters -- Wisconsin winters -- were (and still are) long, stretching from the early fall into late spring. They were also frigid, desolate, and life-threatening, due to the blizzards and the human insanity the harsh country bred. So, when wealthy businessman Ralph Truitt stood on the icy railroad platform waiting for the late train to deposit his want ad wife-to-be before him, he was expecting a woman of plain appearance with a missionary history: someone practical who wanted to be married and give him an heir, but who would docilely enter a sexual union sans romantic love. Someone who could make his house into a home and who was sensible, good, and kind enough to withstand the pressures of living in a still untamed country. That was what his ad had asked for: a reliable wife. Ralph Truitt had a lot to learn. So does the reader because Goolrick's title proves strafed with irony.

As soon as she disembarked the train, mid-thirties Catherine Land had explaining to do. Her beautiful face wasn't a match for the picture she had sent Truitt and he, suspecting her, told her flatly, "Maybe you thought I was a fool. You were wrong." Yet, in a sense the worsening weather saved her. A howling storm meant Ralph wasn't going to interrogate her there and then. And as the horses drew Truitt's carriage toward his estate in blinding snow, fate stepped in and won this woman with a past a reprieve and a renewed, in-person offer of marriage. And that was what she wanted: to be Mrs. Truitt. Well, more precisely, she wanted widowhood and the inheritance of a vast estate.

Another recent novel, Ron Rash's Serena, like A Reliable Wife, opened with a showdown at a rail station in the early 1900's. Serena, having just stepped down from the train to join her new husband, showed her spine of steel and her cutthroat implacability. Was Catherine a woman from the same mold, or would she change her ambitions and her dark and deadly mission? Serena has been likened to Lady Macbeth, but Shakespeare's wicked woman might have had more in common with Catherine. Serena suppressed her conscience and pressed on. Lady Macbeth, when the deed was done, was subsumed by guilt. The woman who traveled to Wisconsin with the intention of becoming Mrs. Truitt would face a frightening inner battle: Should she inflict suffering and death on a man for the sake of greed and a second-hand vendetta? And if love actually dared to bond itself to them, would killing him extinguish her soul with his?

Ralph was no saint himself, but he carried with him an ingrained self-flagellating spirit and a feeling of resignation. "Some things you escape, he thought. Most things you don't, certainly not the cold. You don't escape the things, mostly bad, that just happen to you. The loss of love. The disappointment. The terrible whip of tragedy." As a young man, his "body's hungers had been the entire meaning of his life." Waiting at the train station as daylight disappeared: "He remembered his first kiss. He had loved it all. Once it had been to him all there was." Then he had been wounded to the quick by his first wife two decades ago, and, in his agony over that, had mistreated the young child in his care. He had also lost another person, very dear to him. Now alone and, for all intents and purposes, heirless at fifty-four, Ralph felt the despair that he thought of as an infection. He knew it wasn't unique to himself. He knew "the winters were too long," causing insanity, suicide, starvation, axe murders, and mostly silent desperation and depression. "These things happened."

Goolrick's recurring theme of the potentially devastating psychological effects of long, bleak winters has been written of before. To mention just one example, Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the beloved Little House books, portrayed the frontier life of hard winters and the effects on the pioneers. In These Happy Golden Years, one memorable winter wasn't happy at all. Fifteen-year-old Laura taught school in an isolated area and had to board with a couple. The wife, depressed and otherwise mentally unstable, behaved like a lunatic, sometimes violently. Laura feared being butchered in her bed while she slept. A Reliable Wife also tells of various crimes and self-mutilations by people who had had enough and just flipped out-- including a man who "ate an entire dictionary and died."

These sideline anecdotes of insanity aren't idle filler. They underscore the macabre situation at Truitt's mansion. Ralph went like a meek lamb to his anticipated slaughter, Catherine doggedly dispensed from her little blue bottle, and the suspicious but helpless housekeeper, Mrs. Larsen, was told Truitt had some awful cancer. Then, young, rakish Tony Moretti got added to the deadly mix. In many ways, the swirling snows outside mimicked the Mediciesque tumult inside the elaborate house and in these feverish minds. Part of Ralph might have fancied himself to be Job, and like the Biblical man, he suffered horribly. But unlike the righteous Job, Truitt thought he'd earned his torments. He wanted them. He wanted to die and silence the unremitting voices of regret in his head. He was willing to submit to Catherine's will, almost as meek and undefended as Christ on the cross. In a way, he apparently thought of her as his exorcist although she had no illusions about her role as executioner and her own culpability. Whether or not her motives and feelings changed over time, she knew she was murdering "the man who had saved her from a life of destitution and despair" -- someone who perhaps loved her. There the novel hits the refrain again, as it often does: "Such things happened." Many more bizarre and labyrinthine facets stud the plot, but it wouldn't do to give away too much. Suffice it to say, insanity blew through on all sides. The Reliable Wife seethes with pent up and then savagely unpent passions. Hate, envy, greed, fear, pettiness, guilt, fury, desperation, and jealously all rise up. Betrayal, coercion, deception, and violence are the poison fruits of those festering emotions.

But desire, and or love, also erupt in their times, passed to the reader in, not purple, but definitely provocatively lyrical prose. Ralph, without a woman for so many years, was overcome by Catherine while they were waiting to be married. "He wanted to touch her. He wanted to see the exhaustion of sex in her every gesture. He wanted to unpin her hair in a warm room, and lift her pristine nightdress above her head." And Catherine, once they were in bed, thought: "Making love to him was not like food. It was not nourishment. It was like fire. When it was done she came down in ashes." And someone else, fixated on Catherine, decided "[s]he was the delight and the agony of his youth, yet she had not mattered....She was only the portal to this sensation of being lost, of floating unmoored high above the earth, and he wanted that back again. It was as close as he could come to death."

The author writes with a melodramatic, operatic flair for emotions finally unleashed and running wild. His is a neo-gothic novel in the sense that it combines an edgy tension of romance and horror. It also contains a bit of the fancifully supernatural (as in the superbly written scene in which Catherine trod a dead garden and it seemed to come into full greenery and bloom for her, or where an angel ascended empty-armed). And the prose is sometimes alarming, as if the reader needs a shock periodically: "He wanted to slice her open and lie inside the warm blood of her body."

This is Goolrick's first novel, but not his first book. His family memoir, The End of the World As We Know It, was praised by The New York Times as, "Barbed and canny, with a sharp eye for the infliction of pain." That quote could fairly describe A Reliable Wife also. The publisher, Algonquin Books, suggests,"With echoes of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, Robert Goolrick's intoxicating debut novel delivers a classic tale of suspenseful seduction, played out in a world that seems to have gone temporarily off its axis." That's an excellent single-sentence summary, although one might even venture, "...careened off its axis" because there is something primitive here, something compulsive...the snake of the Garden of Eden disguised as the winter cold sucking away sanity perhaps? But there is also civilization: Ralph was a rational man of commerce, and Catherine loved refinements such as poetry and planned flower gardens. Civilized human beings can sometimes absorb the worst abuses under the protection of hope and love. The dialectic between the primal "heart of darkness" and the humane and cultured heart of charity stokes the plot as well as the reader's own hope that the characters' better angels might prevail.

Often, reading the advance press and promos for a book builds certain expectations. Naturally, this novel didn't unfold quite as I had imagined prior to opening it. I hadn't anticipated the "messiness" of a narrative consisting largely of characters' minds whirling in front of me, in stream of consciousness. It is unsettling to follow them restlessly moving from one thought to a contradictory one, baldly laying bare their brutish instincts, then subsiding almost soothingly, like restive waves. I also didn't expect to be able to predict some plot points so early. Or to want to second-guess the characters at a few junctures.

On the whole though, A Reliable Wife, strikes me as a novel of intensity and raw power. On its own masochistic terms, it also offers up love (and forgiveness) of the deepest kind. I think of it as a hybrid between Gone with the Wind's sweeping but tarnished romantic breathlessness and Body Heat's pulsatingly erotic brew of viperish conspiracy. This is a novel likely to appeal to those who crave a bold but somewhat perverse love story featuring very flawed characters. They, despite their cravenness, reach out to readers and demand notice and even grudging respect and affection. Goolrick's fictional version of 1900's rural Wisconsin folk isn't pretty, but, "Such things happened."

If you are looking for a smart and seductive guilty pleasure -- and a good bet for rich book club discussion -- grab A Reliable Wife.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 807 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from A Reliable Wife at publisher's site

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Robert GoolrickRobert Goolrick worked for many years in advertising.He lives in New York City. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014