A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick
In A Reliable Wife, Catherine Land answers a newspaper ad for a wife, and comes to a remote Wisconsin town to marry its tycoon, Ralph Truitt. She’s got ulterior motives, of course, and so does he. It’s the set-up of any number of Harlequin-style romances, (and there’s definitely enough fairly explicit sex to qualify for the genre) but this book set itself apart with its attention to language and complex characters.
This novel has the scope and subject matter of a Greek tragedy: taboos, betrayals, family dysfunction, something like incest. Unlike in a play, though, the most important plot points go unsaid, completely internalized. It’s a very interior-focused book.
The writing style was one of my favorite things about the novel. It used a lot of what we used to call “summary” in writing workshops–descriptions of personalities and feelings and inner states and vague past actions. In workshop, we said too much summary was a problem, and instead we should put our characters in immediate scenes that have action and dialogue. It was about showing versus telling. Maybe it’s because I got that writing advice so often that I like to see when a writer goes against it and succeeds. Goolrick’s predominant mode seemed to be describing habitual actions and routines, characterizing the way things were for the characters, showing gradual changes in relationships. This allowed a good amount of depth of characterization and motivation, which were just the things that made this book so interesting. The relationships between the three main characters were so complex and intense that there was a lot to discuss in these descriptive passages. And Goolrick’s use of language was so strong that it made the passages feel dramatic and exciting, even though nothing was really outwardly happening. One weakness might be a repeated sentence pattern of many short sentences beginning with pronouns. This pattern seemed to have a forceful, piling-upon effect, although my impressions are probably influenced by the reader of the audiobook I listened to.
Forgiveness was a major theme, and I have to say I was impressed at the main character’s capacity for it, and endurance. When a book has a title like this one, it seems to present itself as saying something big about marriage, and forgiveness and endurance were a big part of that message. Ralph and Catherine grew to love each other, and sex was a big reason, but it was also because of showing kindness and generosity to each other, belonging to each other. Here’s a sentence I liked on the topic:
She had agreed to marry him without realizing that marriage brought a kind of simple pleasure, a pleasure in the continued company of another human being, the act of caring, of carrying with you the thought of someone else.
There were surprises throughout the book instead of just at the ending, and I always appreciate when those kinds of moments pop up in the middle of a novel.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes romance novels, who likes reading about hot sex and passion but is sometimes disappointed by formulaic, cliched portrayals of love.