Sunday Salon – Review of “A Reliable Wife” by Robert Goolrick

The Sunday

For someone to know you, to know you completely and utterly, and still love you: isn’t that what we all wish for? To know you have sinned, and yet be saved? To feel despicable, and be redeemed? In this remarkable first novel, there are no characters not crippled by hurt, anger, and memories poisoned by a suffocating brew of profligacy and licentiousness. And yet, some of them find redemption. Some of them don’t.

The three sinners who take the main stage of this story don’t know much about love. They’ve never had it, and don’t know that it comes from tenderness as much as passion; that it comes from giving love with nothing expected in return. Instead, they try to dull their pain and loneliness with drugs, or lust, or even self-denial. But the pain persists, and they take it out on those who might have loved them, if they had only known what love was about.

When 34-year-old Catherine Land answered an ad for a reliable wife, and came in the cold and bleak winter of Wisconsin in 1907 to marry 54-year-old Ralph Truitt, she didn’t know what to expect. He expected a plain woman; she had sent someone else’s picture. But she was beautiful, and he knew right away that if nothing else, she was a liar.

Ralph had grown up with a cruel, abusive mother and largely absent father. Catherine had grown up an orphan. Neither was confident of having a heart capable of goodness.

On the way back from the train station on the day Ralph picked up Catherine, they had an accident. Catherine had to nurse Ralph back to life, to care for and nurture another human being, a gift that had been denied her in her brutal existence. And so the change in her began.

Tony Moretti was Ralph’s son by his first marriage, a marriage that had ended in mockery and sorrow. Ralph’s first wife Emilia had cared for neither Ralph nor Tony; in fact, Tony’s real father was Emilia’s piano teacher, who soon grew bored with her and left. When Tony was eight, Emilia left as well. Ralph saw in Tony both his mother’s infidelity and his own humiliation and he hated Tony for it. He later admitted to punishing and beating Tony for little reason. And so Tony also was filled with hurt and rage. He explained why he lived a dissolute life in a sexual frenzy:

“There was a moment during the act of love in which he forgot who he was, forgot everything…. In sex, he ceased thinking and became only being, all movement and pleasure and expertise.”

And forgetting was what they all three wanted to do. But of course, it was impossible….even when remembering could prove to be lethal.

Discussion: This is a creative and mesmerizing story skillfully written in spare but elegant prose that constantly surprises the reader with the roiling fervor of thoughts and actions beneath the plain and proper exterior of the words. In this way, the form of the book is a mirror of the characters themselves. Catherine covers up her true persona with plain dark dresses and no ornamentation. Truitt struggles to hide his rambunctious, tormenting demons beneath a strait-laced life of subsistence that serves as self-flagellation. Moretti carefully constructs a façade of insouciance, unconcerned with anything more weighty than securing that evening’s pleasure. All of their exteriors are painstakingly wrought, and turned into well-designed expression, like the words that describe them.

Vivid contrasts also characterize the story itself, from the sex and opium and debauchery of lives made short and harrowing by pain and poverty to the visions of lush gardens Catherine entertains amid the endless white and bitter cold of the winter. Self-hatred and despair are juxtaposed with the shocking possibility of endless grace. These contrasts, set as they are amid surprising plot developments and twists, stun and awaken the senses of the reader much as the frigid wind chill of the Wisconsin winter must have done to inhabitants stepping out of their homes in that endless cold of 1907.

Evaluation: There is so much here to affect you: bleakness, madness, suffering, longing, tumultuous desire, boundless grief, decency, humanity, moral hope, and glimmerings of happiness. This is a story that will haunt you long after you finish the book. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Algonquin Books, 2009

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33 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of “A Reliable Wife” by Robert Goolrick

  1. Excellent review, Jill. I found this a compelling, beautifully (under)written read. The subject matter sounds daunting, even depressing, but the book is a real page-turner. I feel sure someone will have bought the film rights already. Some tremendous parts there for actors.

  2. diane says:

    This is one book that has had such mixed reviews. (I have to audio to listen to). I’m glad to read your positive review. Great job Jill.

  3. I have a copy of this one, so it is great to see that you enjoyed it. Hopefully I’ll get to it soon.

  4. susan says:

    This sounds like something worth reading. As usual, love your review. The pain is palatable.

  5. Trisha says:

    It may sound strange but books that can be described with words like “bleakness, madness, suffering, longing, tumultuous desire, boundless grief, decency, humanity, moral hope, and glimmerings of happiness” are just perfect! Thanks for the review!

  6. Steph says:

    I’ve heard quite a bit about this one, but I wasn’t sure how much of the hype to believe. I often find that books that everyone raves about through the book blogging world wind up being somewhat disappointing when I get to them, and I wasn’t sure how much of this book was style over substance. But your review makes it sound genuinely provoking and intriguing and not really manipulative, all things that appeal to me. I’ll have to see if I can get a copy!

  7. Barbara says:

    These characters sound fascinating and the plot engrossing. It’s going on my growing list.

  8. bermudaonion says:

    Everyone seems to love this book and I can see why – it sounds wonderful! Excellent review.

  9. This is such a fantastic review, Jill! I really liked this book and am so pleased to see it getting more attention in its paperback life. 🙂

  10. Bookjourney says:

    Still on my shelf unread. After reading your review, I have to ask myself why?

  11. Thank you so much. I tried to write a book that would excite you while it was being read, and haunt after it was put back on the shelf. I tried to write a book about the redemption of bad people and, as you say, some of them can be saved, and some of them can’t.

  12. Darlene says:

    Yet another good review for this book. I’ve heard some who don’t like it and others who loved it. It’s sitting on my shelf and I hope to read it this summer as I always like to form my own opinion. It sure sounds like a great story and I trust your opinion. Glad you enjoyed it.

  13. Nymeth says:

    What a lovely review, Jill. This sounds like a painful but beautiful book.

  14. Alyce says:

    I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book. I’m glad to see that you liked it too. I think with all of the darkness and madness though I’ll have to be in the right mood to tackle this one.

  15. Nicole says:

    This was the hot book last year and I promptly picked it up and then never read it. I have got to get to it soon. Unfavorable reviews have been few and far between.

  16. JoV says:

    Heard so much about this book. What more it’s about:
    “bleakness, madness, suffering, longing, tumultuous desire, boundless grief, decency, humanity, moral hope, and glimmerings of happiness” ….

    WOW, just got to have it!!! Great review!

  17. Ti says:

    Another one I haven’t read. Sometimes I feel as if I cannot keep up with all the good ones.

  18. Jenners says:

    Shhhhh…but this is the first review that actually made me want to read this book.

  19. Julie P. says:

    Fantastic review. I read this quite awhile ago and the book has really stayed with me. I thought it was excellent!

  20. Julie says:

    I loved your review! This is one of the first books I read in 2010 and really liked it! Your review gave me even more points to think about. Thanks!

  21. Staci says:

    Bravo on a well written review!! You said exactly what I thought about this book, only much better than I ever could!!! I’m glad that you enjoyed it so much!!!

  22. Marie says:

    Okay, I’ll read it. I’ve avoided reading it for a long time- the publisher has sent me 4 copies now- but now that I see you liked it so much, I’ll have to cave 🙂

  23. Margot says:

    I wrote this one on my wish list last year and then it just sat there. Your review has brought it back to life. I like the in-depth study of these characters. I also like the Wisconsin connection.

  24. gwendolyn b. says:

    I didn’t actually read your review because I’m currently working on my own, but I did check your star rating and I’m glad to see how much you liked the book — I did, too.

  25. Lisa says:

    I thought it was amazing how this book took you from a cast of characters that were completely unlikeable to a cast of characters whose outcome you cared about. I loved that some characters grew, some didn’t and the ending wasn’t entirely tidy.

  26. diane says:

    I’m really curious how I will enjoy the audio version of this book. The story sounds very good as described by you. Thanks

  27. Great review! This book is on my shelf patiently waiting to be read. After reading your thoughts, I’m looking forward to giving it a try.


  28. Tina says:

    Just catching up! What a powerful review. I’m defintely going to be on the lookout for this one. I really appreciate the way you let us know that we might not like some of the characters but will still find this a rewarding read. Thanks for your always spot on insight.

  29. stacybuckeye says:

    This is the first review of this book that has made me want to read it. Great review!

  30. Valerie says:

    This is one book I’m getting to very soon. Many people like you have loved it, but I’m also curious about the reviews who say they don’t like it so much (and usually then refers to the sex scenes).

    Sounds like this is a book that gets into the characters’ minds and examines what’s there; and to me that is intriguing!

    • Valerie,

      There’s definitely a lot of thinking and talking about lust, but I felt it was to show two things: (1) how desperate the characters were for love; and (2) how they understood so little about love that they did not know it was a thing that was different from sex; that it could be made up of giving without taking; that it could be gentle and healing; that it could be, in fact, nothing more exotic than acceptance. So I don’t see the sex as being about sex per se.

  31. Rebecca:) says:

    You write the most exquisite reviews. I have this book but have yet to get to it. This review makes me want to move it to a sooner rather than later pile. I need to get caught up on my review books first.

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