History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 February 2010

The Reliable Wife: Bleak Romance with a Questionable "HEA"

There are some books I finish and I just sit there for a minute at the end and think "What was that?" That's what happened when I read the Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick. I must admit, I picked it up because I liked the title, and the cover said ROMANCE: A headless woman in a beautiful Victorian-looking red dress standing in front of a train.

Now this was not the original cover, which was much more staid and literary looking (a simple title on a sign), so I figured the new cover was meant to target me, a romance fan.

Well, was I in for an interesting read. I read the whole book in a few hours, with my eyebrows raised at the purple prose, the complete implausibility of the plot, and sex-obssessed characters that were hard to like and unsympathetic. But I kept reading. For some reason I wanted to know what happened. The ending had a sort of "happily ever after" ending, but without giving anything away, I honestly didn't buy it. Not after the extreme emotional and physical abuse these characters suffered and put each other through. But what bothers me the most are the literary reviews---so many said this book was a BODICE RIPPER! Now come on. Who ever calls this book a "soap-opera bodice ripper" hasn't read one. I've read a few.

Was this book a romance? No. Decidedly not. It also had a queer way of making me feel icky at the end, even with the so-called happy ending that the author likened to the end-style of a Jane Austen novel: Everything solved to everyone's satisfaction in the few final pages. NOT!

I have taken the liberty of posting this review by Ron Charles, who reviews for the Washington Post. I think he sums it up fairly, if not favorably. I agree with most of what he wrote, except I still have a hard time believing that these severely damaged people could ever forgive themselves and each other.

By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009


By Robert Goolrick

This Story
FICTION: Loneliness, Lust and the Mail-Order Bride
FICTION: Living Far From Home
COMIC NOVELS: If Animals, and Zombies, Could Write
Algonquin. 291 pp. $23.95

"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 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 City 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."

So what do you think? Have you read this book? Is this a bodice-ripping romance with more literary-suffering than you usually like?

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Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I think there's not a snowball's chance in hell of my reading this book. It sounds awful. I love historical fiction, but lurid Gothic stuff was never my cuppa.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

Been on national best seller list for weeks, has movie contract...and sooo many people hate it. The author has told his story and hootenanny people to read it and think about it. Mission accomplished. In a strange way, I'd like to have that kind of success, but not with a love story that makes people go "yuck".

3:00 PM  
Anonymous Kathrynn said...

Ps...don't post from an iPhone...have no idea how "hootenanny" got subbed for "gotten".

3:04 PM  
Blogger Marnee said...

I haven't read it and, after both Kathrynn's review and the Washington Post review, I won't. Not what I'm looking for in a "romance".

3:56 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fascinating post, Kathrynn! This probably says something about the way my brain works (and why I never quite fit in the romance genre), but I have to say both your post and the review make me intrigued to read this book (which I hadn't heard of before). Just the sentence "The floor collapses in almost every chapter, and we suddenly crash through assumptions we'd thought were solid" is enough to send me to the book store. Also, I'm interested to see if I think the writer can pull off the happy ending. It sounds as though that would be challenging, but it's interesting to watch writers approach challening situations (like seeing if actors call pull of the Richard of Gloucester and Anne Neville courtship scene).

4:54 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Lynn said...

I agree with @TracyGrant. I'm fascinated, and would love to read this train wreck for myself. I'm relatively certain that I won't love it, but I have to see it for myself...

8:36 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I haven't heard of this book, but I do like being taken for a wild ride and having my expectations challenged. Perhaps because in the real world I'm such a non-athletic, physically timid sort, I put all my adventuring into my readerly self.

6:49 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

Hmm, I'm torn between wanting to read it and thinking TOO DEPRESSING !! I don't mind waiting and suffering for my HEA, but if the HEA at the end is that questionable I don't know if the trouble is worth it. I read Anna Karenina in the original Russian and Madame Bovary in the original French and between reading them in languages other than my native tongue and they truly depressing stories I was read to kill both heroines before it was over !!

That's the same reason I don't read Nicholas Sparks. I read romance to escape for a while, to travel back into the past. And while I am all for realism in my romance, having lost a spouse at a young age (he was 33) to a drunk driver, it is NOT something I want to read in a romance novel.

Still, my curiosity is piqued. One of these days when I FINALLY get a book published I might take a day off and read this one. Or maybe I'll just watch the film! LOL

8:45 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I guess I'm just easily put off things (too many things I actually WANT to read to bother with something that looks likely to annoy or depress me).

Same with movies. Until someone explains why the damn rocks defy the laws of physics in Avatar (aka Pocahontas in Space), I won't be bothering to see it.

I can't get over stuff like that and just enjoy the movie or book, much to the annoyance of many of my friends.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

ROFLMAO at Pochahontas in Space, Kalen !! I couldn't agree more.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

You know, Louisa, I don't care much for Sparks either.

And Pam, I think "being taken on a wild ride, and having my expectations challenged" is exactly why I kept reading this book...I felt the spiral down though, and in the end, it was hard to feel lifted back up. It just kept getting sadder and more violent. I felt a little beat up at the end, without the kind of hope, say, that one might have after reading another downer book with an uplifting end--The Kite Runner.

9:48 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

My husband and I saw Avatar on Valentine's Day and we were both a bit bored by action sequences that went on too damn long, although the filmmaking is ambitious. And yes -- I whispered "Pocahontas!" to him as well, during the obvious scene. "Pocahontas in Space" is absolutely perfect shorthand for the movie and maybe that's even how Cameron pitched it to the studios!

I have not read A RELIABLE WIFE, but the way Charles describes it, it sounds more like melodrama than romance. But the review would in fact make me read it because Charles does seem impressed with Goolrick's craft as a novelist and that's something that tends to resonate with me as a reader. I look for voice and style more than plot.

4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It may sound like a bodice ripper, but not a romance. Bodices are ripped during molestations and rape, and those events are not romance.
It sounds to dark for me to enjoy.

8:31 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I devoured this book in about three days (very fast reading for me) and over all thought it was wonderful (the last 100 pages got me through a difficult afternoon at the vet's). Loved the twists (though I could see one of the major ones coming which allowed me to appreciate how Goolrick played fair with pov). And I believed the hopeful ending, which was quite a feat for the author to pull off. The book also intrigued me because the whole Theseus/Phaedra/Hyppolitus triangle which Goolrick talks about in the interview at the end of the book is something I've played with myself as a writer. Oddly, there's a scene in "The Mask of Night" involving a frozen river and a father and son which is a sort of inversion of a scene in "A Reliable Wife." It's a scene I wrote completely without thinking about its thematic resonances. When it was written I looked at it and thought, "Oh. Of *course*."

11:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes I read it. Yes it is unconventional. Yes it is a book I won't forget. It is challenging, probably not some romance readers cup of tea. I read it because Goolrick said in an interview that literature in modern times lacks passion and he wanted to write a passionate book. Difficult but well worth the journey.

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished reading this wonderful novel. I was surprised at how it kept me captivated. I couldn't put it down. I finished it in a week. The book was non stop roller coaster of emotions. It truely makes you think about life & how our actions can make such difference. Also, that we are all capable of change & forgiveness. I liked the love story thrown in the mix. It wasn't too much (I am not into romance novels). In the end this book will stay with me forever & I respect the Ralph & Catherine in the end. Great book!

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I persevered and finished reading this book this morning. I was fascinated at the authors desire to believe in a humanness that could be so "forgiving" - in the face of what might be considered to be the unforgivable. I was challenged to suspend belief - could a person really "know" and still be authentic, be unchanged in future interactions after "knowing"? The purpose of the "overly prolonged " steamy bodice ripping sex was lost on me in more than one scene. Jane's art of coincidence and timing cause this to pale. I finished the book but wouldn't recommend it. with so many other great reads available.

1:26 PM  

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