As cool as a winter wind

The cover for A Reliable Wife is deceiving. It was the sole reason why I kept moving past the book every time I saw it despite the note that it was a #1 New York Times Bestseller. A couple of people must have liked it but I didn’t give the book a chance because of that sassy red dress and midnight train.

There was no male arm snaking around her waist so it wasn’t a romance – at least not a typical romance. The author’s name threw me as well – Robert Goolrick. Men don’t write romances, do they? Maybe they do but use a pseudonym.

One time I flipped the paperback over to read the description.

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 herself a wealthy widow. What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own.”

The first time I read that, it did nothing. Then last week, while Christmas shopping at Target, I saw A Reliable Wife again, walked by it three times again, read the back and tossed it in my cart. I’m not sure what made my wrist flick and send the pages flapping but I am so glad I did.

If you haven’t already (one of those readers who sent it to the NYT list), go read it now. Buy yourself a Christmas present, find a blanket, and settle down. And trust me on the blanket.

In the early days of winter in 1907 Wisconsin, Ralph Truitt waits at the train station to greet the woman who answered his advertisement for a reliable wife. He married once before, even had children, but they are all gone and he has been alone and lonely for twenty years. The small spark of hope that he refuses to call love still burns in him and he tells himself he wants a companion, that’s all.

He is rich and owns the town. He inherited the business from his father after gallivanting through Europe in search of pleasure, bringing his young Italian wife with him. Ralph is reserved and still and at times very scared of what his life has become.

Catherine Land steps off the train looking nothing like the photograph she mailed with her letter. That’s because she isn’t who she says she is. Catherine has lived the only life of independence afforded to women at the time and has the emotional scars to prove it. She dreams of a life of love and money, and Ralph Truitt will serve her purposes fine.

Only there is a twist. Ralph has finally found his son Antonio and wants his new wife to go fetch him. He hopes a woman’s touch will melt his son’s heart and coax him home. In a lovely twist, instead of Catherine being surprised by the identity of his son, she happily spends the week in bed – Ralph’s son is her lover who set her on the course of murder.

Goolrick continues the surprises as Ralph, Catherine and Antonio are surprised by the choices they make, the changes that shift in their souls. The ending seems inevitable but only after it has occurred. It is difficult to keep revealing new tricks while making each one seem fresh and appropriate.

On another small craft point, I loved how Goolrick used different sentence styles for dialogue and thought. His characters speak in short sentences, rough and abrupt and not at all forthcoming. But the paragraphs describing inner thought and intent can ramble and meander to circle the main point that character is obsessing over. The contrast between inner and outer speech is just one of many counterbalances that Goolrick employs to demonstrate his central theme that there are hidden depths in us all.

Much of the foreshadowing occurs through landscape and descriptions of the town. The action occurs during the long, blinding winter when bright snow covers everything. Catherine keeps the shades drawn during the day to keep the glare at bay. Items are lost in the snow. Feelings are buried. Fires smolder under the cold.

Which leads to how A Reliable Wife isn’t a romance but is a very sexy and sensual story. Ralph is preoccupied with his carnal longings. His memories of youth are riddled with drugs and orgies and no consequences. He also remembers his mother’s strict religious mores and how they were impressed on him. He imagines the people in his town and what must happen behind closed doors and is tremendously jealous.

Catherine is restrained with Ralph once they are married – she is trying to maintain her farce of a virginal missionary’s daughter. With Antonio, she is free and revels in her love of his touch. She allows him to do whatever he wants. His pleasure means everything.

The cold of winter melting into spring is the perfect metaphor for the building desires of all three characters. And it is the onset of spring weather that achieves the tragic climax. Goolrick did a wonderful job of marrying form and function. Instead of just describing the landscape to set a scene for a reader who has never seen Wisconsin, the landscape and weather is a key player in the story and conveys mood and thought.

In the back of the book, Goolrick cites Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip as a key inspiration for his frozen Wisconsin. Goolrick writes:

Its collage of words and photographs paint a haunting, cinematic portrait of a small town in Wisconsin at the diseased end of the nineteenth century. We had imagined the cities to be teeming with moral turpitude and industrial madness, and rural America to be sleeping in a prosperous innocence, filled with honest and industrious people. Not so. Lesy unlocks the Pandora’s box of country life to show us its dark and ravaged soul.

Goolrick’s Wisconsin is terrifying with crimes committed with no apparent reason, madness and suicides a regular occurrence. The house might be freshly painted white with windows warm from light within but that doesn’t mean everything is all right. A Reliable Wife is nerve-wracking and poignant and doubly chilling for me since I read it during a week of below freezing days.

*Winter picture via Earth Water Sky.

**For more information about Wisconsin Death Trip, visit the book’s Wikipedia page and the Wisconsin Historical Society. Some photos are posted below. Can I tell you how much I want that book now?

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