Classic review: The Reliable Wife

This debut novel sets an old-fashioned Gothic tale amid the ‘eternal snow’ of Wisconsin.

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    The Reliable Wife
    By Robert Goolrick
    Algonquin
    320 pp., $14.95
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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Mar. 27, 2009.] On a fall day in Wisconsin, a man stands waiting for his bride. Before you get all mushy on me, let me add that they’ve never met before, and she was “ordered like a pair of boots from Chicago.” The ad read: “Country businessman seeks reliable wife. Compelled by practical, not romantic reasons.”

And the woman who’s coming on the train isn’t the woman whose picture Ralph Truitt holds in his hand.

That satisfyingly twisty opening sets the stage for A Reliable Wife, the first novel by Robert Goolrick, who previously won acclaim for his Southern memoir of growing up with an alcoholic father, “The End of the World as We Know It.” This time around, he’s headed far north for this glittering, poisoned ice cube of a tale.

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Catherine Land isn’t the dowdy missionary’s daughter she claimed to be. Instead, she’s a beauty who’s hungry for money and love.

“She could not, would not live without money or love. Ralph Truitt had shyly promised in his last letter to share his life and she would take what he had to give.” And what Catherine has in mind is darker than a little run of the mill gold-digging.

But Ralph isn’t the country bumpkin Catherine had imagined, either.

“Maybe you thought I was a fool. You were wrong,” the wealthy businessman tells her when she gets off the train. Furious with her lies, he’s nonetheless attracted to her and brings her home anyway. Before the two can have a proper conversation, Ralph is seriously injured in a carriage accident, and Catherine devotedly nurses him back to health. She can’t have him dying on her – at least, not before the wedding.

“A Reliable Wife” has a little of the Gothic feel of Daphne DuMaurier’s “Rebecca” – complete with a dead first wife, suspicious housekeeper, and gorgeous mansion. (This one is an Italianate wonder, standing improbably in rural Wisconsin.)

However, “jolly and honest,” Mrs. Larsen is no match for the implacable Mrs. Danvers, and Catherine Land hasn’t been a naive ingenue for some 20 years.

“She had so little life of her own, so little self,” Catherine reflects, “that it was easy take on the mannerisms of another with ease and conviction.”

As winter sets in, Catherine learns about Ralph’s wild youth in Europe, his marriage to an Italian noblewoman, and how he lost his first family. The tragedy some 20 years earlier has left him wary of a world that seems unrelentingly bleak. “Some things you escape, he thought. Most things you don’t, certainly not the cold.”

In turn, readers learn about Catherine’s past as a courtesan, taken up to provide for a younger sister she dearly loves. Both characters are more than they initially appear, and Goolrick spins out the complications while Catherine considers whether to use the dark-blue bottle she’s got hidden in her suitcase.

In the meantime, she finds herself growing to like Ralph and finding hope in her wintry surroundings.

“The snow was eternal, infinite. Across the yard, across the roof of the barn, down to the smooth round pond at the foot of the farthest field. There was not a footprint, not a mark in the entire landscape, only the silvered and impenetrable sweep of snow. Perfection. You see, thought Catherine, sooner or later, everything gets a fresh start. It’s not just possible. It happens.”

Of course, as those of us who live in northern climes know, sooner or later (usually later) all that white “perfection” melts, revealing a season’s worth of trash and muck hiding underneath.

“A Reliable Wife” is eminently readable and should delight fans of old-fashioned Gothic romances, but ultimately, it’s no “Rebecca.” For one, the plot hinges on a big twist ... that I guessed well in advance. And the novel could have used a touch more atmospheric tension and a dollop or so less of Ralph ruminating about sex.

But Goolrick is a solid wordsmith, and he handily manages the impressive task of making readers care about a woman bent on cold-blooded murder. And generating the proper Gothic ambience in Wisconsin is no mean feat.

What’s next? “Wuthering Heights” set at the Mall of America?

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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