Today we’re talking about A Reliable Wife in our third installment of the Literary Wives series. In May we kicked the series off with American Wife, and in June we discussed The Paris Wife. I’m hosting this series with The Bookshelf of Emily J., Persephone Writes, and Unabridged Chick—so be sure to check out their reviews today!
A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick; published 2009 by Algonquin
If you’ve read this book, I’d really love to hear your thoughts because, frankly, this one has me puzzled. First of all, Goolrick’s writing is totally different from what I’ve seen before in American literature. It is dark and Gothic and poetic—even often repetitive. The pace was surprising as well, with the first few chapters describing mere hours, and then in a single sentence months flew by. I loved Goolrick’s use of the land and weather almost as another character. I didn’t love the weird obsessive, voyeuristic discussion of sex; the primary male character is almost constantly thinking about how everyone else is having sex. I’m just not really sure what the point was. But we’re here to talk about wives.
The plot starts with the fabulously wealthy but lonely and haunted Ralph Truitt waiting at the train station for his new wife. He’d put an advertisement in the Chicago paper for “a reliable wife,” and the woman he’d chosen had responded by saying she was “a simple, honest woman.” That was the first lie, of many to come. The reader soon discovers that ex-prostitute Catherine Land intends to kill Ralph by slowly poisoning him, presumably to take his money. But Ralph has his own motivation for marrying again: to help him reconcile with his long-lost son. I don’t want to give away the many plot twists that continued to shock me, but let’s just say that Catherine increasingly finds herself caught between these two men, and her plan to kill Ralph becomes more difficult.
1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
What excites me about this book in the Literary Wives series is that it’s the first book we’ve read in which marriage is a positive force in the relationship. When we first meet Catherine, she is bitterly determined to grab what fortune has hitherto denied her: money. She has a few precious jewels, which she sews into the hem of her dress as “insurance” in case she quickly needs to get away after she meets Ralph. Her view of marriage is distant, something other people did.
All of a sudden, she was afraid. It had never occurred to her that they would have to talk; they would say hello, of course, but she hadn’t gotten much farther than that. Now it seemed to stretch into infinity, the endless small talk she imagined as the daily life of married people, the details, the getting and grabbing, the parrying and accommodating, the doing of whatever it was that married people did.
On the way home, their carriage overturns and all of Catherine’s jewels are lost. She has no insurance, no way of leaving now. But Ralph and Catherine find that, despite their intentions to use each other, they are happy together. She nurses him through a severe illness and realizes that in doing so, she’s not only healing his body but also healing the sorrows of her own past. Suddenly she sees that marriage—a shared life of two people caring for each other, even in its monotony—could be an end in itself, rather than the means to an end.
She wondered whether she didn’t already have the thing she had set out to get. The love and wealth of a man who would not harm her.
I think this quote illuminates one important truth of marriage that often gets down-played. Marriage is habitual, full of repetition, and it can be boring sometimes. But in Catherine’s case, there is comfort in that. It’s safe. Having structure actually allows more freedom.
2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
I don’t think that Catherine brings a totally new or revolutionary definition to the word “wife.” I’m not even sure that she doesn’t allow Ralph’s definition of “wife” to define her. But if she finds happiness and fulfillment and love in that, is it bad? There is a ton of sex in the beginning of their marriage—really, a ridiculous amount—and while they are both using each other for other purposes, I think Ralph uses her for sex as well. But after a while they still enjoy being with each other.
Truitt had seen her in a new way. And his vision had made her over, had caused her to turn into the kind of woman he wanted. …A new quiet had entered into the way they treated each other, a simplicity of manner. It was, Catherine supposed, love. It was what normal people had when passion had run its course.
Though it was a strange book, and the constant intrusion of sex was distracting, I loved that marriage was so good for her. Of course, marriage is not anyone’s salvation, and it wasn’t the status of being married that made the change in her. It was Ralph’s kindness and her willingness to play along, until their affection became real.
She had agreed to marry him without realizing that marriage brought a kind of simple pleasure, a pleasure in the continued company of another human being, the act of caring, of carrying with you the thought of someone else.
So while this is by no means a favorite book of mine, for the purposes of this series I was very glad that we read it, if for no other reason than that it portrayed a different view of what it means to be a wife than we’ve seen so far in American Wife and The Paris Wife.
What did you think?
Don’t forget to read The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin this month and join us on August 1 to discuss!