Just finished A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009).
Summary: "Rural Wisconsin, 1909. 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."
Opening line: "It was bitter cold, the air electric with all that had not happened yet."
My take: A fresh and enjoyable, vaguely Gothic take on the classic mail-order bride tale -- an excellent last book of summer.
As the summary suggests, both Catherine and Truitt come to their marriage with darker, more complex motives than their brief correspondence suggests. We know what Catherine wants from the get-go, though we don't yet know why -- without spoiling what may be a surprise to some readers (though I had my suspicions), it's fair to say she didn't quite pick Truitt's ad at random. Ralph Truitt takes a bit longer to figure out. One thing is clear, though: He may be the richest man in his small Wisconsin town, but this status has left him desperately lonely for both physical and emotional contact, ever since the untimely death of his faithless Italian wife and their lovely but simple young daughter, and the disappearance of the young son he blamed, many years earlier. Despite knowing his now-grown son was probably fathered by his late wife's lover, he's inexplicably driven to bring him home and reopen the long-abandoned grand home his first family shared.
The marriage gets off to an inauspicious start on several fronts. For one thing, Catherine turns out to be far more beautiful than the picture she'd sent Truitt earlier -- so much so that he realizes the photo wasn't really her, and she confesses to sending a plain cousin's photo instead. For another, a dramatic October snowstorm on their way home leads to an accident that leaves Truitt gravely injured, and requires Catherine to spend weeks alongside the devoted Mrs. Larsen, stitching his wounds and aiding in his care. At first, the stark stillness is nearly enough to drive her mad, but she comes to appreciate both Truitt's reserved dignity and that of his home ... so much so that she questions her devotion to her original mission not once, but many times.
An excellent book -- well worth a read.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.