Sunday, March 10, 2013

Review: A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Title: A Reliable Wife
Author: Robert Goolrick
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Algonquin
Published: 2010
Pages: 320

Rating: 3 out of 10

This is the story of a lonely, rich older man who places an ad in the newspaper for a "reliable wife." Catherine Land replies, and soon finds herself in a remote Wisconsin town, the lady of a luxurious mansion, and wife of a wealthy man. Her scheme is far from over - she is planning to poison her husband and live in his house with her lover, who is also his son.

The description on the back of this book prompted me to read it in one sitting in the Barnes & Noble cafe. I can never resist a Gothic story, and this one involved love triangles within the family, lonely manor houses, and a villainous heroine? I had to read it.

This book was, yes, Gothic and twisted, with just the right amount of refined eeriness to it. The author was good at throwing in small details that furthered the dark atmosphere.

However, there were simply too many problems to ignore. All in all, this book felt very much like a guilty pleasure. After I got a little ways through it, I found myself laying it flat down on the table, embarrassed to be seen with it.
In the hands of a great writer, it would have been amazing. In the hands of a lesser one, it takes on a distinct soap opera air.

The plot, which was the strongest aspect of the book, got a bit lost. The author was trying so hard to create a twisted story, that it ended up getting too twisted, sent tripping out of control.
The beginning was good, but when Catherine journeys to St. Louis to find Antonio, the plot line begins to dim and lose focus.
The whole thing with Antonio was, though a good idea, poorly executed. Catherine has known Antonio long before she knew his father, Ralph Truitt, and yet the reader is not privileged to learn this fact until Catherine has met up with Antonio a few times.
When Goolrick finally did reveal that Catherine and Antonio had a history together, I simply felt confused, far from surprised or delightfully shocked. Why would Catherine treat Antonio like a stranger, and then acknowledge him a few visits later? It didn't make sense, as if the author loved keeping his readers out of the loop so much, he couldn't resist drawing it out just a little longer.
It would have been far better if Catherine had (very unexpectedly) fallen into Antonio's arms when she first saw him.

As much as the progression of the plot rests on it, the Antonio thing just never really came across to me. It never seemed believable, and was just... Wrong, somehow. I don't mean morally wrong (the author got that right, at least), but written wrong. I can't quite put a finger on it, but something was off.
Perhaps it was because there were some gaping holes. Such as, the fact that Antonio and Catherine have apparently been planning this together. But how is this possible? Catherine wouldn't have known that it was Ralph Truitt (her lover's father) posting the mail order bride ad in the paper. It also would have been impossible that Antonio knew about it and told her, since he and his father are estranged and haven't seen or heard from each other in over ten years. So this perfect plan of theirs is, at its basis, ridiculously impossible.

Much like Antonio, Catherine also has a dubious encounter with her sister, Alice Land, while in St. Louis. Again, the entire situation seemed contrived and poorly written. Why was Alice even there? Coincidence? Perhaps it showed a glimpse into Catherine's past, but that could have been done in flashbacks. The introduction of her unfortunate sister seemed rather suspicious and nonsensically pointless.

The characters went from almost well written (Ralph), to cliche and poorly written (Catherine), to ghastly (Antonio).
Ralph, the older man whom Catherine marries, was the first character that we are introduced to in the story. He is a tortured, lonely man - longing for love, terribly self conscious, quiet, and noble. I loved him, and he was the only one in the book who seemed real to me. Through it all, I sympathized with him, never with Catherine, our heroine. He was the innocent of the story, the sufferer.

Catherine, the main character, was interesting in so much as the idea of her. A smart, beautiful woman who is in love with a father and his handsome son, who has lied her way into a wealthy marriage, and is now planning to poison her husband. You must admit that it does sound intriguing (if not very, very cliche).
While the idea of Catherine is what I wish she had been - shocking, devious, clever, seductive - her actual character in the book is not half so good.
She is cardboard, doing whatever furthers the plot - or, more commonly, what doesn't exactly further the plot but tangles it up and makes it go in random circles - and having too many changes of heart to fathom. She loves him, she doesn't, she hates him, she loves him, she will poison him, she won't, she poisons him, she doesn't poison him, she saves his life, she sleeps with him, she doesn't sleep with him.... And so on.
Is this the author's idea of complex character? Um... no.

And finally, the character of Antonio was even worse. I have already said that his appearance in the story was shaky at best. That feeling that something I can't quite touch upon is wrong continued with Antonio's character for the entire story.
The author has him do a few things that set him up as the bad guy. (He seduces a girl and then tosses her aside, causing her to hang herself. When everyone goes to her funeral, he stays home and plays merry piano tunes. All of this was told in one paragraph.) Antonio was a character that we never get to know. We never get inside his head. However, the even bigger problem was that the author constantly gives you the impression that he thinks differently. He seems to think that yes, he has given you a powerful glimpse inside the villain's mind.
In reality, Antonio is a laughable attempt at a brooding, evil-but-sexy bad guy.

Those are really the only three characters - there was a housekeeper who appeared a few times, but the book mainly had only three people in it.

It was interesting the way that Goolrick portrayed sexuality here. Ralph tells the reader that when he was young, he asked his mother what hell was like. His mother took a sewing needle and jabbed young Ralph in the hand with it, twisted the needle, and said "That's what Hell is like." She then told him he was wicked. As a result of his mother's cruel teaching, Ralph views sex as something wicked. He both hates and loves sex, in the way that people both loathe and relish pleasurable things that they know are wrong. He says at one point that he loves having sex with bad girls, because he doesn't mind ruining them; he views having sex at all as something dirty and shameful, never loving.
Ralph constantly imagines the sexual lives of others around him, like imagining what horrible sins a pastor may have.
Sex is mentioned quite a lot in the book, though not necessarily only in the actual sex scenes.
The author wanted a sexually charged, sexy book, I can gather that much.
In a way, he succeeded. In a dark, black, repulsive sort of way, A Reliable Wife does come across as sexual.
On the other hand, I often felt like rolling my eyes at the author's many references to night time lovemaking. After awhile, they seemed thrown in simply to give a certain thought a character has extra sleaziness or perverted-ness (I know that isn't a word, sorry, Grammar Gods...), just because he could.
It got old.

Even though this book was entertaining reading, I wouldn't recommend it. Did I enjoy it? Well... *blush* Yes.
But I also would enjoy eating an entire carton of ice cream tonight.
Read another book instead. Believe me, you can find better than this light soap opera. It comes dangerously close to teetering on the bodice-ripper line (yes, there is one scene where a bodice is, indeed, ripped...sigh ).

Entertaining, but not recommended.