Deceit, desire and despair

I had never heard of the novel “A Reliable Wife” nor its author, Robert Goolrick, until I glimpsed it on the shelf of a thrift store at the Oregon Coast.

The cover depicted a shapely woman from the neck down, dressed in a rich, red fabric, and a steam-powered passenger train against a wintry gray sky.

The book was a national bestseller and several blurbs on the back cover offered enthusiastic praise, calling it “thrilling,” “intoxicating,” “mesmerizing,” “engrossing and addictive.”

The synopsis sounded intriguing:

He placed a notice in a Chicago paper, an advertisement for a “reliable wife.” She responded, saying that she was “a simple, honest woman.” She was, of course, anything but honest, and the only simple thing about her was her single-minded determination to marry this man and then kill him, slowly and carefully, leaving herself a wealthy widow. What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own.”

reliable wife

I was intrigued. The only question was whether a fictional story set in rural Wisconsin in 1907 would hold my interest.

Turns out the answer was, “Hell, yes.”

“A Reliable Wife” was a marvelous book. Meticulously researched, elegantly written, full of surprising plot twists and built around three flawed characters — each of them a lonely soul and striving (or conniving) to fill a hole in their life.

From the opening chapters, when Goolrick introduces Catherine, a woman with bad intentions, and Ralph, a wealthy and taciturn widower who seeks female companionship, I was hooked.

Their initial meeting at the train station quickly goes from awkward to suspenseful. On their way to Ralph’s home, a deer spooks the horses pulling Truitt’s carriage and sends them crashing through a fence into the flat, snow-covered fields on a bitterly cold dark night.

Just like that, Catherine is thrust into a situation where she must save the life of the severely injured man she just met — or see her murderous plan to enrich herself fall apart before she can even take the first step.

robert goolrick

Robert Goolrick

In the chapters that follow, Goolrick does a brilliant job of exploring his characters’ motives and psyches as well as conveying the isolation and dreariness associated with a wintry Midwest landscape. The third major character, Antonio, appears when the scene shifts to St. Louis in the winter of 1908.

Goolrick writes with elegance and precision, composing short, simple sentences in a style that made me think of Hemingway and Carver.

Consider this passage describing Catherine’s arrival in St. Louis:

The city entered her like music, like a wild symphony. The train pulled into Union Station, that giant garish chateau, and she stepped from Truitt’s railroad car into the largest train station in the world as though her skin were on fire.

The station smelled of beef and newsprint, of beer an iron. She had been away from this for too long. She had been in the wild white country, and her heart burned with the adventures, the friends, the food and drink, the multiplicity of event the city promised. People came here to be bad. People came here to do the things they couldn’t do at home. Smoke cigarettes. Have sex. Make their way in the world.

I loved this book. Turns out it was Goolrick’s debut novel, published in 2009. He began his writing career at 53 after losing his job in advertising and followed up “A Reliable Wife” by writing his own memoir.

While this make-believe story was plainly about deceit, desire and despair, it was also about revenge and redemption, cruelty and kindness, catharsis and forgiveness.

In an interview, Goolrick acknowledges that each of his main characters has an agenda, a secret and a plan.

“These characters are not good people. They have lived mistaken and cruel lives, done despicable things. I wanted to see if they could be redeemed, if the tiny spark of hope in each of their hearts could be enough to redeem them from damaged childhoods and thoughtless adulthood. They are strong because they are damaged and have had to fight to survive.”

The best fiction recreates a specific time and place so well that the reader is drawn into a world where characters come alive and dialogue rings true. In imagining this bleak Wisconsin landscape and a trio of characters plotting against each other more than a century ago, Goolrick has done exactly that.

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2 thoughts on “Deceit, desire and despair

  1. YAY! Love a good book review leading me to a good book — that I might someday make time to read. (Don’t let the 10 books on my night stand know I am flirting with other unread books.)

  2. Glad this book sparks your interest. I just got myself three books from Title Wave used bookstore and a mutual friend just offered me two more books I haven’t read. All this to go along with the three or four already on my shelf just waiting for me to crack ’em open.

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