Monday, July 1, 2013

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Book 3 of the Literary Wives series

I initially read this book about 3 years ago as a Borders employee, since it was a “make” book. Absolutely nothing about it resonated for me. I rarely even mentioned it to customers, because I could not honestly say I “liked” it. I realized that the story was just way too depressing for me, and I couldn’t find much to appreciate or like about the writing style. I rated it one star on goodreads.

Upon seeing it listed for the Literary Wives discussion, I swore I would NOT reread this, but I broke down Saturday and checked it out from the library…and…reread it. This time I was more aware and took better note of writing devices employed by the author, whether by design or subconsciously I don’t know, but there are many ways in which Goolrick creates and reinforces the bleak, desolate, and hopeless supporting atmosphere for this bleak, desolate, and hopeless story: (1) Frequent repetitions of “Such things happen,” or “Such things happened,” emphasizing the belief that life just happens to us, we have no control, (2) repetitious description of the dark, bleak, desolate, and barren Wisconsin winter landscape, (3) repeated references to the atrocities committed upon themselves and each other by members of the community (suicide, beatings, murders, etc.). I’m sure there are many more…and now I understand a bit better my reaction upon my first read that the story felt so repetitive to me, it was! However, these repetitions do much to make this one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever read; please understand that I try to reject truly depressing reads because I’ve found daily life can present many depressing factors with which I must deal and I really do not want to read about others’ unless it is uplifting, and frankly, I found very little to nothing uplifting about this book. I can only hope this was the author’s intention, or perhaps it is just my specific interpretation and reaction…

The second time around I did detect just a bit of redemption at the very end in each of the main characters. For Catherine, I guess it was better late than never, and she did seem to be truly “rehabilitated” to a genuinely kind and caring human being, following one of the most bizarre stories of human destruction I’ve ever read… And Ralph did appear to truly regret the abuse he had heaped upon “his” son, however, his main goal in obtaining forgiveness was simply to ease his own mind and make him feel better about himself, “redeemed.” Once a narcissist always a narcissist, I guess?!?

Interestingly, having just reread The Great Gatsby several months ago, I discovered some similarities between these two books: amassing wealth to do nothing more than advance your own standing/prestige, to the exclusion of any truly personal/spiritual  development, exploiting people for your own gain. Most of Truitt’s 2,000 inhabitants worked directly for Ralph Truitt; “He underpaid them, though he grew richer by the hour.” (page 9) However, Goolrick does include the helplessness and seeming hopelessness of abject poverty born of parental abandonment (e.g. death) and/or abuse/neglect. This is particularly devastating to females who have no real economic/financial recourse in 1908 to truly “make a living,” other than the “oldest profession”? Catherine states she “…would not, could not, live without love or money.” (page 20) 

Neither of them cared about nor knew how to “love,” sex was just motion that others enjoyed, though I believe at the end they may have each discovered some love in their hearts, but what a long and painful journey! I could appreciate Catherine’s recognition that having enough money to live well as Ralph’s wife was part of the reason she could become more caring, life was just easier…I believe Catherine had known true love for her younger sister, Alice, and although she had worked very hard to provide her with a life much better than her own, Alice, too, turned to prostitution, though she was seduced at age 12 by Catherine’s “sugar daddy” at the time. And I did feel true compassion for Catherine as she watched Alice dying, much as I was able to feel for Antonio as he died. 

A theme from this book to which I could relate is just how difficult, and many times impossible, it is to overcome the injustices played out in our childhoods: Ralph for a truly uncaring, cold-hearted, abusive mother who refused to hold him as a baby, etc.; Catherine for being orphaned at such a young age and forced to “make it on her own”; and Antonio for his father’s physical and emotional abuse, and mother’s abandonment of him. I did increase my goodreads rating to 2 of 5 stars.

If you're interested in the Literary Wives online discussion, four bloggers are hosting this: AngelaAriel, Audra, and EmilyRead the book and join in!

There are 4 books chosen: (1) May: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, (2) June: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, (3) July: A Reliable Wife by Richard Goolrick, (4) August: The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin. Everyone who wishes to read these books and join the discussion is invited to do so. 

The questions to consider:
Question 1: What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
Question 2: In what way does this woman define "wife" -- or in what way is she defined by "wife"?

#1 Perhaps most obvious for me, literally anyone can be a wife, at least hold the title, etc. This was evidenced by the fact that Ralph just advertised for a “wife” and got one! Little did he know this woman was his son’s lover and they hatched a plan to kill him and live well with his money to keep them. Wives can be faithful in some ways and unfaithful in others: marrying only to benefit their own family’s finances (Emilia), sexually promiscuous with other men (Emilia and Catherine), plotting their husband’s death (Catherine), slowly poisoning their husband (Catherine), etc. Alice (American Wife) definitely held the title of wife, but loved Charlie, and was faithful and loyal, perhaps to a fault in some ways… Hadley (The Paris Wife) definitely married Ernest for love and was faithful, though she eventually set limits and dissolved the marriage.

#2 Catherine defines “wife” by treating this role as a complete sham initially, but eventually, after nearly killing Ralph, beginning to truly love him…I think! (And hope.) She is defined by her role as “wife” in acting as if she is an unaccomplished lover at first, and learning to present herself as a mannered “lady” (while in St. Louis), however, she was also sleeping with her husband’s son at the time! Such hypocrisy! But I believe she does eventually become Ralph’s true “wife,” at least according to my standards! Alice (American Wife) became totally defined by her role as “wife” in many ways, though she did stand up for her own individual beliefs eventually in some ways. Hadley (The Paris Wife) was in my opinion a truly faithful, loyal, and understanding “wife” until faced with a polygamous relationship, and then she removed herself from that role.


  1. I love your connection to The Great Gatsby! I noticed the theme of "money can't buy happiness" but didn't really articulate that or explore what it meant. You do a great job of presenting that here. I also tend to like depressing books, which is why it strikes me as funny that I didn't like this one. There must be something more about it, rather than the bleakness and darkness you mention, that for me makes it distasteful. I think the sex and the obsession with it is part of it, but I think the overall lack of redemption as well. Oftentimes, depressing books will at least have a glimmer of hope or a way for the characters to change or "to be good again," as The Kite Runner reminds us. Thanks for reviewing this! It is nice to have your voice added to the conversation. :)

  2. Thanks so much for reading and replying! I love this discussion and hope you all continue it, but if not, I now find I have built a small collection of "wife" books to follow through with this in the future! It's fun and philosophically challenging, I think! I remember the sexual content overwhelming me with the first read... I always find that so disruptive! I posted in response to someone else that I wonder if this isn't a carry over from Goolrick's own life experiences to some degree, since his autobiography (The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes From a Life) was evidently quite disturbing, leaving a goodreads reviewer to rate his upbringing as worse than that of Jeannette Walls, Frank McCourt, or Mary Karr! And it was published only two years earlier than this book! He did release another book, Heading Out to Wonderful, last year. I want to read the autobiography, but I have a feeling his fiction may always be this sick and twisted, which means I won't be reading it... I relate this to reading about real-life criminals; I don't need or have the desire to know "how they think"! I'm sorry they can't adapt to society, but I don't want the grisly details!! 😛