I was quite impressed with A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. And so I was surprised when I looked it up on Amazon to see that it averaged only 3 stars. I was even more curious when I saw that the average was divided about evenly between people who loved it and people who hated it.
I think the love/hate reaction can best be summarized by the first few lines describing the novel in Publishers Weekly and The Washington Post (quoted from the Amazon site linked above:)
Set in 1907 Wisconsin, Goolrick’s fiction debut (after a memoir, The End of the World as We Know It) gets off to a slow, stylized start, but eventually generates some real suspense. (Publisher’s Weekly)
Don’t be fooled by the prissy cover or that ironic title. Robert Goolrick’s first novel, “A Reliable Wife,” isn’t just hot, it’s in heat: a gothic tale of such smoldering desire it should be read in a cold shower. (Washington Post).
The blurb on the book jacket lets the reader know that this is the story of a prosperous businessman who gets a wife by mail. The wife, pretending to be a demur, proper spinster, is in fact a woman with a broad sexual history who intends to poison her new husband to inherit his wealth.
This sounds like a rip-roaring yarn, a noir perhaps, and that’s what disappointed the irate readers who hated this novel (as well as some who were dismayed by all the sex), for this is really a book that explores desire and despair. It does so at length, with intensity, vividness, and attention to language. That is the point of it, not the suspense, though the suspense has a purpose in providing the means to convey the grip of desire, the struggle to the death with despair.
The novel was inspired by Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. In the 1970’s, Lesy came across a series of strange turn of the century photographs in a small Wisconsin town. After matching the photographs to newspaper articles that covered the same peculiar and deadly events, he produced a book about them. More recently a film was made of the same gothic material.
This is a terrific novel, unexpected, atmospheric, doing what literature can do that film cannot: using language to explore and evoke the intensity and strangeness of human experience. I recommend it highly.