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A Reliable Wifeby Robert Goolrick
Come a day, you might get sick of hearing about A Reliable Wife — so many people will have read it and raved to you about it. Here's some preventative medicine: read it first. Seduction, marriage, money, sex, drugs, murder... when Catherine Land arrives in Wisconsin on a snowy day in 1907, we know she's an imposter — but does her husband-to-be? Robert Goolrick has written a novel that you'll want to devour in a single sitting. Simultaneously, you'll want to luxuriate in its drama as long as possible. Whatever you decide, there's too much pleasure in these pages to leave to your friends.
Frank advertises for a "mail-order bride," and Catherine accepts. She arrives in Wisconsin during a blizzard, which sets the initial tone for the chilly interaction between them. They both have sinister, unexpressed plans for each other. Heavy on themes of sex, greed, and self-interest, The Reliable Wife morphs into a pseudo love story. Ralph suffers at Catherine's hand, and she seems untouchable but is she? Catherine undergoes a character change that is slow, believable, and satisfying. I loved it!
Synopses & Reviews
Rural Wisconsin, 1907. In the bitter cold, Ralph Truitt, a successful businessman, stands alone on a train platform waiting for the woman who answered his newspaper advertisement for a reliable wife. But when Catherine Land steps off the train from Chicago, she's not the simple, honest woman that Ralph is expecting. She is both complex and devious, haunted by a terrible past and motivated by greed. Her plan is simple: she will win this man's devotion, and then, ever so slowly, she will poison him and leave Wisconsin a wealthy widow. What she has not counted on, though, is that Truitt — a passionate man with his own dark secrets — has plans of his own for his new wife. Isolated on a remote estate and imprisoned by relentless snow, the story of Ralph and Catherine unfolds in unimaginable ways.
With echoes of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, Robert Goolrick's intoxicating debut novel delivers a classic tale of suspenseful seduction, set in a world that seems to have gone temporarily off its axis.
"Set in 1907 Wisconsin, Goolrick's fiction debut (after a memoir, The End of the World as We Know It) gets off to a slow, stylized start, but eventually generates some real suspense. When Catherine Land, who's survived a traumatic early life by using her wits and sexuality as weapons, happens on a newspaper ad from a well-to-do businessman in need of a 'reliable wife,' she invents a plan to benefit from his riches and his need. Her new husband, Ralph Truitt, discovers she's deceived him the moment she arrives in his remote hometown. Driven by a complex mix of emotions and simple animal attraction, he marries her anyway. After the wedding, Catherine helps Ralph search for his estranged son and, despite growing misgivings, begins to poison him with small doses of arsenic. Ralph sickens but doesn't die, and their story unfolds in ways neither they nor the reader expect. This darkly nuanced psychological tale builds to a strong and satisfying close." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Don't be fooled by the prissy cover or that ironic title. Robert Goolrick's first novel, "A Reliable Wife," isn't just hot, it's in heat: a gothic tale of such smoldering desire it should be read in a cold shower. This is a bodice ripper of a hundred thousand pearly buttons, ripped off one at a time with agonizing restraint. It works only because Goolrick never cracks a smile, never lets on that he... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) thinks all this overwrought sexual frustration is anything but the most serious incantation of longing and despair ever uttered in the dead of night. The curtain rises in 1907 during a Wisconsin winter "cold enough to sear the skin from your bones." Ralph Truitt, the wealthiest man in town, stands frozen in place on a train platform, but inside he's burning with the unsated desire of 20 solitary years. Ralph is waiting for his mail-order bride, a woman he requisitioned through a classified ad: "Country businessman seeks reliable wife. Compelled by practical not romantic reasons. ... Discreet." That may sound as horny as Sunday school, but Ralph isn't entirely what he seems, standing there on the platform with "his eyes turned downward, engraved with a permanent air of condescension and grief." Inside, the 58-year-old widower is startled by the intensity of his desires, consumed with thoughts of sex and murder and madness in homes all around town. "Sometimes his loneliness was like a fire beneath his skin," Goolrick writes. "He had thought of taking his razor and slicing his own flesh, peeling back the skin that would not stop burning." This first chapter, in which everything appears stock still, is told in a husky whisper of something lurid and painful, "the terrible whip of tragedy." Again and again, we hear this refrain, like a judgment and a curse: "These things happened." Keep this in mind as you're scanning the personal ads in the paper. When Catherine Land finally arrives, looking prim and dour, she isn't what she appears to be, either. She threw her extravagant party dresses out the train window a few miles from town, and she has hidden jewels in the hem of her black wool dress. She's not even the woman in the photo she sent Ralph during their summer of tentative correspondence. And she's carrying a bottle of arsenic and "a long and complicated scheme." Poor Ralph has some awfully bad luck with women: the matrimonial equivalent of sailing to Europe on the Titanic and flying home on the Hindenburg. "This begins in a lie," he tells Catherine sternly as he picks up her bags. "I want you to know that I know that. ... Whatever else, you're a liar." All Ralph wants — or pretends he wants — is "a simple, honest woman. A quiet life. A life in which everything could be saved and nobody went insane." That's so hard to attain when your new bride hopes to poison you straightaway. But damned if he doesn't almost die in a spectacular riding accident while bringing her home from the station. Poor Catherine finds she's got to nurse Ralph back to health before she can start killing him. Don't worry: I'm not giving anything away. Neither of these two steely people is playing straight with the other, and Goolrick isn't playing straight with us, either. The floor collapses in almost every chapter, and we suddenly crash through assumptions we'd thought were solid. Goolrick keeps probing at the way people force themselves not to know something — not to believe the truth — in order to fulfill their deepest longings. The novel is deliciously wicked and tense, presented as a series of sepia tableaux, interrupted by flashes of bright red violence. The whole thing takes place in a fever pitch of exquisite sensations and boundless grief in a place where "the winters were long, and tragedy and madness rose in the pristine air." The word "alone" spreads through these pages like mold in the cellar, until it's everywhere. The stillness and whiteness of the Wisconsin setting eventually give way to the lush depravity of St. Louis, lined with music halls and opium dens. Much of this section takes place in "a tented, brocaded bedroom, like a palace abandoned before a revolution." I'm reluctant to quote much more for fear of making the book sound silly — "Love that lived beyond passion was ephemeral. It was the gauze bandage that wrapped the wounds of your heart" — but once you've fallen into the miasma of "A Reliable Wife," it's intoxicating. (Columbia Pictures has already grabbed the rights for what could be an inflammable movie.) I'm reminded of Edgar Allan Poe's stories with their claustrophobic atmosphere, hyper-maudlin tone and the extravagant suffering that borders on garishness. (Yes, Goolrick includes a forlorn castle, too.) These are all qualities the author displayed in his equally gothic memoir, "The End of the World as We Know It" (2007). But his inspiration for "A Reliable Wife" reportedly came from "Wisconsin Death Trip," a grim collection of antique photographs published in 1973. The editor of that book, Michael Lesy, reproduced pictures of children laid to rest and parents in shock, along with newspaper anecdotes about murder, illness, assault and insanity — the same kinds of ghastly tales that obsess Goolrick's overheating characters. Ultimately, this bizarre story is one of forgiveness. But the path to that salutary conclusion lies through a spectacularly orchestrated crescendo of violation and violence, a chapter you finish feeling surprised that everyone around you hasn't heard the screams, too. You can follow Ron Charles at twitter.com/roncharles. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"I was totally captivated by A Reliable Wife. Raw and lyrical at the same time, Robert Goolrick's wonderful novel grips the reader with its complex and beautiful story." Sandra Brown
"A Reliable Wife is a nearly forensic look at love in all its incarnations, with all its damages, deceptions, and obsessions, run through with points of light and pinned with ruinous truths....Astonishing, complex, beautifully written, and brilliant." Sara Gruen
"A Reliable Wife is eminently readable and should delight fans of old-fashioned Gothic romances....Goolrick is a solid wordsmith, and he handily manages the impressive task of making readers care about a woman bent on cold-blooded murder. And generating the proper Gothic ambience in Wisconsin is no mean feat." Christian Science Monitor
"A killer debut novel....Suspenseful and erotic....[A] chillingly engrossing plot...Good to the riveting end." USA Today
"A gothic tale of...smoldering desire....The novel is deliciously wicked and tense, presented as a series of sepia tableaux, interrupted by flashes of bright red violence....Once you've fallen into the miasma of A Reliable Wife, it's intoxicating." The Washington Post
"Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife is my must-read recommendation....This engrossing and addictive novel will leave you both chilled and satisfied." NPR's Morning Edition
"A thrilling, juicy read....The writing is beautiful and the story is captivating. It's a real page-turner." Today Show
"A tantalizing pace that will have you flipping faster and faster through the pages....A beautiful and haunting read, a story about all the different manifestations of love — a story that will stay with you." Minneapolis Star Tribune
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 her a wealthy widow, able to take care of the one she truly loved.
What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own. And what neither anticipated was that they would fall so completely in love.
Filled with unforgettable characters, and shimmering with color and atmosphere, A Reliable Wife is an enthralling tale of love and madness, of longing and murder.
About the Author
In addition to A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick is the author of the acclaimed memoir The End of the World as We Know It. He lives in a small Virginia town.
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