A Reliable Wife is the first novel by Robert Goolrick, whose previous memoir The End of the World as We Know It dealt with his abusive childhood. Set in 1907, the novel is about Ralph Truitt, a wealthy man in a small Wisconsin town who has put an ad in the newspaper for “a reliable wife.” But Catherine Land, the woman who gets off the train to marry him, is anything but. She carries with her a blue bottle of arsenic that she will use to murder Truitt and take all his money. Catherine wants “love and money” in this life, and while Truitt supplies the money, the love must be with her “useless and beautiful lover,” who she has left behind her in the big city.
The tone Goolrick establishes here is florid and descriptive with moments reminiscent of Jane Eyre, if that book were set in America and if Jane Eyre were an opium-smoking prostitute. Certainly the frozen landscape of rural Wisconsin works as well as the moors of England to portray isolation and severity. But this gothic landscape also works against Goolrick in that it makes the story feel overly familiar, as though you can predict the ending before you begin.
Luckily, this is not entirely true. Buried in A Reliable Wife is an entertaining story that is at times surprising and even touching. As Goolrick provides convincing answers to questions about his characters’ motivations, themes begin to unfold. These are people who have lost hope in their own redemption. Through the course of the novel, some characters choose to seek that hope and others do not. Those who do find a kind of reprieve and can start again.
Since this is a worthy subject for any writer to wrestle with, it’s odd that Goolrick insists that his story is so mundane. The novel is continually interrupted by what “they” are doing—“they” being the unseen hoards of people committing indecencies to one another in this Wisconsin town. “Their husbands or their wives went crazy in the night, in the cold, and burned their houses down for no good reason, or shot their own relatives, their children dead. They tore their clothes off in public and urinated in the street and defecated in church, writhing with snakes…It was in the papers every week.”
It’s implied that Truitt and Catherine are just two of many crazed and locked up “thems” out to hurt each other and get what they want. In fact, their actions seem rather tame compared to what some of “them” are doing—defecating in churches and tearing off clothes in public would be remarkable today, let alone in 1907. While the intention here may be to add larger resonance, the interruptions serve to untether the story and make it seem more generalized than it actually is.
Goolrick is a ticky, mannered writer with an unusual love of clauses that can sometimes give you comma whiplash. This, combined with the graphic problems “they” are having throughout the novel may be enough to turn some readers off. And that would be a shame, because in the middle of this book a secret is revealed that pushes the plot forward. Freed into clearer storytelling, A Reliable Wife relaxes into an entertaining novel full of all kinds of juicy things—deception, betrayal, murder, sex, and even love. When Goolrick stays away from generalizing and sticks to his characters, he is capable of a good yarn.