Reader’s Journal: A Reliable Wife

ReliableWifeThis is my 9 for ’09 challenge pick for Cover, a book that interested you either because the cover is pretty or ugly.

I won’t lie to you: I chose this book for its cover. But I didn’t pick it out for the challenge because of its cover. In fact, I had picked another book altogether, Summer at Tiffany. I decided to switch to this one because it’s true: the cover wouldn’t leave me alone. Every time I saw the image on a book site, I found myself clicking on it. I never could remember what the book was about, actually, even though I read the description more than once. Something about the cover design just pulled me in. Has that ever happened to you, where you find that every time you’re perusing the shelves (either virtually or physically), you find yourself drawn to a particular book time and again because of the cover?

When I realized it was futile for me to resist–that this book would have me, eventually–I gave up and moved it to the top of my wish list, and someone bought it for me for my birthday. I mentioned in last week’s Booking through Thursday post that there was a line in the description that made me pick the book up, and that is true as well, but the cover was my first attraction.

A Reliable Wife is set in Wisconsin at the turn of the Twentieth century. Ralph Truitt, a wealthy business man, has placed an advertisement in the Chicago paper for “a reliable wife.” He is answered by Catherine Land, who tells Truitt she is the daughter of a missionary, a plain religious woman:

I am not a schoolgirl. I have spent my life being a daughter and had long since given up hope of being a wife. I know that it isn’t love you are offering, nor would I seek that, but a home, and I will take what you give because that is all that I want. I say that not meaning to imply that it is a small thing. I mean, in fact, that it is all there is of goodness and kindness to want. It is everything compared to the world I have seen, and if you will have me, I will come.

This is a novel where nothing is as it seems, and people are telling the truth even as they lie. The deceptions begin almost immediately, but in every deceptive act is a kernel of true desire. Desire, in fact, is the heart of this book: sexual desire, the heart’s  desire, desire for a home, desire for peace, desire for redemption and forgiveness. Unfortunately, to discuss much of the plot would be to give too much of the book away. Catherine and Truitt’s relationship intensifies and develops in such a way that even as one deceives the other, they both believe they are getting what they want, or perhaps what they deserve.

The harsh winter landscape of Wisconsin serves both as a backdrop and a metaphor for the cold plains of the heart where Truitt and Catherine reside. Goolrick presents the landscape as both beautiful and harsh, alternately comforting and treacherous in its silence. I’ve always enjoyed books about the plains, about settlers who crossed and made lives all through the Nineteenth and into the Twentieth century. At the end of the book, Goolrick explains that his inspiration was a book by Michael Lesy called Wisconsin Death Trip:

Its collage of words and photographs paint a haunting, cinematic portrait of a small town in Wisconsin at the diseased end of the nineteenth century. We had imagined the cities to be teeming with moral turpitude and industrial madness, and rural America to sleeping in a prosperous innocence, filled with honest and industrious people. Not so. Lesy unlocks the Pandora’s box of country life to show us its dark and ravaged soul.

I have not read Wisconsin Death Trip, although I did go so far as to check to see if the local library has a copy (it does), so I can check it out sometime in the near future. However, even without reading the book that so inspired Goolrick, I feel he has “[unlocked] the Pandora’s box of country life,” given them the layers of complexity they are so often denied.

Some favorite passages (that won’t give anything away!):

In every house they passed, there were lives that were wholly known to him. In these houses, people knew one another; they knew him as well. He had held their babies, been to their weddings, been shocked by their sudden flights into madness and rage. He was and he wasn’t a part of their lives. He was there and he had done what was required of him, what was expected.

They went crazy in the cold; they went deep into the heart of their religion and emerged as lunatics.

She was a lonely woman who answered a personal advertisement in a city paper, a woman who had traveled miles and miles on somebody else’s money. She was neither sweet nor sentimental, neither simple nor honest. She was both desperate and hopeful. She was like all those foolish women whose foolish dreams made her and her friends howl with hopeless derision, except that now she was looking into the face of such a woman it it didn’t seem funny at all.

Love drove people crazy. He saw it every day. He read it every week in the paper. Every week the papers were filled with the barn burnings, the arsenic taken, the babies drowned in wells to keep their names secret, to keep their fathers away from them, to keep them from knowing the craziness of love. To send them home to the holiness of God. He read these stories aloud to Catherine at night, after supper, and she would invent stories about the sad women and the deranged men. She would say their names over and over, until even their names became a kind of derangement.

She spent her afternoons in the public library, its high windows slanting the pale thin winter light down on the long tables where men and women, ladies and gentlemen, the latter mostly young and handsome with glossy hair and ruddy cheeks, sat and passed an afternoon reading novels or the newspaper, or seriously researching things with maps and biographies and dictionaries. She liked these people. She sat among them as one of them, a stranger to them as they were to one another, and she was happy.

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6 comments

  1. I have had the experience of being drawn time and again to a book because of its cover. Some of those books I have read, Some I haven’t. I really enjoyed your review. This book intrigues me and I liked the passages you copied, the writing is quite good but the images are what stuck with me. I was amazed when you mentioned Wisconsin Death Trip as the author’s influence because I was looking at that book in the store last week. I saw it on the shelf and took it out because my father grew up in Wisconsin and I spent some time there as a child. I have Wisconsin Death Trip on my TBr list and now I have this book as well.

    Thank you!

  2. Amy, it’s fate! How interesting. I had never heard of Wisconsin Death Trip until I read this book. I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts about it, and about A Reliable Wife. I wish I could have included more passages here, but there are so many twists and turns in the book, I was afraid of leaving any little clues that might give something away. Thanks very much for visiting!

  3. What a wonderful review! With this line “The deceptions begin almost immediately, but in every deceptive act is a kernel of true desire.” I think that you summarized the book beautifully. I read this book last month and loved it.

  4. Tracie, thanks! I really could have gone on and on, but as I said, didn’t want to give anything away. When I was looking back through the book for passages, I realized how many little clues and details there were. Such a well written book…I am happy you enjoyed it as much as I did. Thanks for visiting!

  5. Hi – Thanks for being part of the 9 for ’09 challenge. Yours is the best description so far for the Cover category.

    I also need to read this book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  6. Isabel, thank you for running the challenge. If I only finish one this year, this will be the one! The book is so good–and the cover is even prettier in person!

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