Prose Described as 'Lucid and Smooth-Flowing'
A Reliable Wife
By Robert Goolrick
Algonquin Books, 2009, $23.95
The reader won't understand just how reliable this wife is until late in this first novel by the author of the memoir, "The End of the World as We Know It."
Ralph Truitt is a successful businessman in a small northern Wisconsin town, where winter lasts forever. When the book begins, he is standing alone on a train platform late on a bitterly cold fall day in 1907.
Truitt has advertised for "a reliable wife," someone to keep him company and add social flavor to his lonely home, now bereft of wife and children. He is awaiting the arrival of Catherine Land, the woman who answered his ad and appears to be exactly what he is looking for.
However, Catherine Land is not the woman whose picture he received with her reply. Oddly, she has sent the photograph of a very plain woman, a friend, whereas Catherine, in the flesh, is actually a beautiful woman. Ralph is suspicious, but he gradually believes the reasons she gives for her deception.
For one thing, he is critically injured on their ride from the station to his estate. The horse bolts when a deer moves into the snowy path, the carriage flies off track and Ralph is delirious with pain. Catherine manages to take the reins and allows the injured horse to follow his homing instincts and get them to the Truitt estate. Then, with help from the housekeeper, Mrs. Larsen, she nurses Ralph back to health, even executing makeshift sutures for his head wound.
From the beginning Ralph senses that she has not given him the whole story, but he finds himself strangely attracted to Catherine. And although she tells him immediately that she is not interested in romance, she soon finds her own attraction in this enigmatic man.
Both Ralph and Catherine have backgrounds that neither wants to discuss.
His first marriage ended in tragedy, with his beautiful Italian-born wife leaving him for another man, their daughter dying in childhood and a son leaving home in anger. The reader must wait until later to learn Catherine's background.
It's tempting to reveal more of the story here, but to do so might destroy a reader's pleasure as the plot travels from unexpected to unexpected.
Background information on both Ralph and Catherine is related in such vivid detail that one wonders if Goolrick borrowed case studies from sociologists. Instead, it is more likely that he borrowed deeply from his own growing-up years, as graphically depicted in his best-selling memoir. Each character is scarred by a disastrous childhood, he with a hateful, vindictive mother, she with a drunken father and a poverty-stricken home. Their dysfunctional adult lives make perfect sense, but the coincidence of it all is hard to swallow.
In almost classic ambivalence, "A Reliable Wife" is gothic romance coupled with horror story. The writing is clear, the style almost symmetrical in description and character development. The prose is so lucid and smooth-flowing that the reader is lulled into an almost romantic trance before the plot rocks you into stark reality and jolts you to the edge of your seat.
The publisher reports that foreign rights have been sold in France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Brazil, Australia, Canada, Spain, Norway and Bulgaria and film rights have been optioned by Sony on behalf of Michael DeLuca.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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