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.
Published by Algonquin Books, 2009