Even Better the Second Time – Reconsideration of “A Reliable Wife” by Robert Goolrick

Recently I reread this book because it was my turn to pick a book for our book club and I selected this one. It had been a while since I read it, however, so I took it up again. I won’t recapitulate the plot here; you can check my original review if you desire.

This time, I didn’t need to race through to find out what would happen next, and could savor the exquisite language the author uses to express both passion and pain. I felt the pain more too, because I was reading more slowly. The characters Ralph, Catherine, and Antonio suffer from a self-loathing that is expressed in unquenchable lust. They feel doomed to lust as if to hell; but love is not and could never be part of the equation. Thus they could look forward only to loneliness and despair for the rest of their lives. They never had lived with love, and had no idea what it could mean; that, for example, simplicity could be a part of it, or that kindness and forgiveness formed part of its intricate lattice.

They understood lust though. They knew its addictive qualities. They knew that, like any drug, it bestowed the bliss of forgetfulness upon the user. They knew there was a sexual frisson in the very act of self-destructiveness it betokened. They knew it could be a poison for others as well, and that it could serve as an instrument of revenge.

Goolrick invokes the poet Walt Whitman in this book to express the desire for death, but he could have also chosen Auden to testify to the mystery of love. “O tell me the truth about love,” Auden pleaded, and indeed, that is what each character is trying to discover. And Auden could also have conveyed what they felt upon love’s loss:

“The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.”

And so the characters want to lose themselves and lose awareness through lust; but they also crave restitution with all of their being. They want restitution for the loss of innocence and of the knowledge of kindness; they want restitution for the deprivation of love. They want restitution for the scars that disfigure them inside and out. And so they rail against love.

“[They]. . . .hurt themselves [and] wreck their own lives and then go on to wreck the lives of those around them, who cannot be helped or assuaged by love or kindness or luck or charm, who forget kindness, the feeling and practice of it, and how it can save even the worst, most misshapen life from despair.”

What ultimately saves Catherine is hearing Ralph’s heartbeat, not literally, but figuratively. Ralph believes, in spite of everything, “that there is a persistence of song.” Catherine finds out the truth about love from Ralph, and it astonishes her.

Evaluation: This is book that will sear you to your very soul with its raw pain and psychological insights, and yet it will do so in gorgeous language and with an innovative and spellbinding plot line. I loved it the first time; I loved it even more the second.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Algonquin Books, 2009

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23 Responses to Even Better the Second Time – Reconsideration of “A Reliable Wife” by Robert Goolrick

  1. Sandy says:

    Oh Jill, Jill, Jill. This is one of those rare times when I couldn’t disagree with you more. But I would be the one of the few people in the “hate” camp for this book…everyone else seemed to love it. I really did hate it. Yes, well the writing was good, but the characters were horrid. They all seriously creeped me out, and I couldn’t get far enough away from them once I’d finished the book!

  2. I am happy to see you liked this enough to read it twice. So many of the reviews have been so so. I do have a copy.

  3. Ceri says:

    I’ve now read both your original review and this and, it has to be said, that this is one I really want to read now. I love a good book set around the turn of the century but have never read one set in America at that time. Not only that but I absolutely adore the sound of the story and the characters. This is going right on my wishlist.

  4. Jenny says:

    Rereading is so good. I love it when I have an experience like this, that not only confirms my original love for the book, but extends it.

  5. Trisha says:

    Wow! That is one awesome evaluation.

  6. Barbara says:

    I can’t imagine the sadness of a life lived without the knowledge of what love is. In an ideal world we would all know real love of different kinds: parents, children, spouse or lover, friend.

  7. There is nothing like rereading a book you enjoyed the first time. A few months ago, I reread the Anne of Green Gables series and was delighted all over again.

  8. Staci says:

    I loved this one too. I honestly love the way your write. Have I already asked if you were a professor or teacher??? Anyway, the only thing that would have made my reading experience better was if I read this during a winter storm…other than that this was a fantastic reading experience for me.

  9. stacybuckeye says:

    Great review redo. It was like reading poetry. If a book is better the second time that is saying something and I look forwar to reading this one even more now.

  10. Julie P. says:

    I loved it too but your review makes me think that I should read it again.

  11. zibilee says:

    You know, I bought this book last year for my birthday, and I still haven’t read it! You make it sound irresistible and provocative, and I think that I have been missing out by not having read it. it goes on the list for this month, if I can make time for it. I need a read that inspires me with it’s language! Thanks for the great review and the kick in the pants!

  12. I have this and now i can not wait to read it…. awesome thoughts on this book.

  13. This makes me want to read it again, I really loved it when I read it, I’m sure I’d appreciate it more the second time around.

  14. JoV says:

    I have been watching this book for awhile and I think I should go out and just get it after your 4.5 stars! Thanks for the reaffirmation. 🙂

  15. Alyce says:

    This book just sounds very depressing to me. I’m sure I’d have to be in the right mood to read it (and I’m not right now). The fact that you liked it so much does carry weight with me though, so I will be keeping it in mind.

  16. Margot says:

    I can’t imagine living a life without love of some form and the plot sounds like it wouldn’t suit me. However, it was pure pleasure to read your post. It was prose or poetry – not sure which one. I can tell you enjoyed the book a great deal and the words really moved you. I’m glad for that.

  17. Ti says:

    Ok. I may have to break down and get this one. It was $5 for the Kindle the other day but I remained strong and saved my money. Thanks for making me want to spend it!

  18. Jenners says:

    I had kind of written this off because I’d read quite a few negative reviews by various bloggers. Are you sure you are reading the same book!?!

  19. Valerie says:

    Jill — I, too, loved this book. I don’t usually do rereads anymore, but maybe I should for this one!

  20. It seems as though people are either love it or hate it with this book. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s sitting on my shelf and you make me really want to crack it open soon.

  21. Pingback: A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick « The Sleepless Reader

  22. Care says:

    Great review.

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