I regret to say that I did not finish A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, though I made it through 3/4s of the book and so feel I can say I gave it my best shot. The book may appeal to certain readers, though I am not one of them. I offer little here by way of critique or review of the book except to say that the difficulty I had with reading it came from marked flaws in the realization of believable characters.
The plot, briefly, is of a wealthy man, Ralph Truitt, who “purchases” a mail-order bride, of sorts. This woman, Catherine, turns out not to be who she says she is, but rather an imposter intent on killing Ralph for his money. I am not spoiling anything by telling you this, as it’s pretty clear from the start that this is her plan. What I won’t tell you is how she is luridly and intimately involved in Ralph’s past in a way that is beyond distasteful. To find out, you’ll either have to chance it with the book or perhaps look for more information in the posts my co-hosts write for this novel (see links below).
As a far as plot goes, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it. A skilled writer could do something interesting with it, and there are flashes of that something in this book — unique turns of phrase, some interesting twists. But there is way too much repetition, and not enough action happening over the course of more than 100 pages to warrant the page count. However, plot aside, my struggle with the novel is the lack of credible character development – this was a deal-breaker for me.
For starters, Ralph is a shallow character with a textbook case of sexual obsession…could be interesting, except Goolrick doesn’t go there. Why is Ralph this way – is it a choice or is it a mental disorder? And what does he suffer by struggling with his obsession? How does he grow as a person through his obsession? What is his moment of grace, the moment when he can choose to change and become something other than what and who he is? These are all worthy questions to explore. However, none of them are investigated. Ralph is sexually obsessed as a child and grows into a sexually obsessed adult. He never apologizes for it or questions it or seeks to restrain it; he simply revels in it. This is hard to like. Nothing about him is attractive or sympathetic, in spite of the useless and tired old saw that he had an overly religious, borderline abusive mother, an overly indulgent if disconnected father, and a skewed image of God. Over and over again, we read is that Ralph is thinking about sex, about his past sexual exploits, and about all the people all around him having sex. How is this supposed to compel me to care about this character, much less continue reading? It seems to me Ralph chooses to give in to his compulsion and never thinks critically about it. If he is mentally ill, then the book should be about grappling with this form of mental illness. If he is simply a sex addict, then it should be about that. But it isn’t about either of those. I’m not quite sure what the book is about, but it isn’t about the reality of what it is to live as a sexually obsessed, psychologically damaged individual. For the record, I tend NOT to gravitate towards books that have a central focus on sex, and this one absolutely has that focus, across the board, for all the main characters. Had the lack of adequate character development not been so glaring, it is quite likely this focus on sex would have been the next reason in line for why I didn’t finish the novel. It is entirely possible that the emphasis on sex overshadowed the need to develop sound character — this seems to me a common, though no less depressing, problem in popular fiction. Moving on….
Via an odd flashback, we learn that years earlier, Ralph meets a woman in Italy, Emilia, whom he falls in love with and brings to America. He builds an entire world for her, but she is shallow and unfaithful and loves only his money. Ralph’s choice of Emilia in light of his sexual obsession and her shallowness is entirely inexplicable. There is nothing about her character that would warrant either his choice of her as a mate, nor such a dramatic change in his character – full-throttle libertine to chaste spouse in one fell swoop? No way, not for someone like her. Also inexplicable is how Ralph is duped by her disguised greed – his worldliness would seem to make this an impossibility. Also inexplicable is his grief at her death and his subsequent sublimation of his previously physically compulsive sexual obsession for a no less active mentally compulsive sexual obsession. None of this makes any sense, nor does it ring true psychologically.
Fast forward to the present and Ralph’s weird liaison with Catherine. I’m not even going to discuss Catherine except to say that she is a very sorry excuse for a woman. Ralph’s contract to marriage with Catherine is also a ruse, in more ways than one, and does nothing to soften him – or her – and make him even remotely likeable. What is a wife in this book? How is she defined? Based on the portion of the novel I read, a wife is 1) cold-hearted and fanatical, 2) unfaithful, 3) a schemer, 4) greedy and selfish, 5) a murderer, 6) a whore, and 7) vengeful. Entirely too much negativity for me. I have a lot of compassion and empathy, but the cold-blooded plan Catherine cooks up with her lover to murder Ralph for his money and the appalling abuse she takes at her lover’s hands are beyond sympathy. Nor did I really care much for their sick sordid relationship and what they were plotting, simply because I didn’t really care about Ralph. The whole triangle is a mess and left me feeling page after page like I was reading a novelization of All My Children or As The World Turns. I kept wondering, “What is this book about? What am I supposed to take away?” There were simply no answers… when I read I’m looking for more – more depth, more complexity, more realism, and more psychological richness.
It is hard for me to be critical of Goolrick. As a writer myself, I know how extremely difficult it is to create believable characters with psychologically sound motivations. Writing anything well is hard work. I do not say he is not talented; however, these faults in character development, at least for this reader, were deal-breakers. I simply needed to stop the car. Perhaps the last ¼ of the novel shatters all of my 3/4 view impressions and, if so, I’d be happy to stand corrected. But who am I anyway? The critics loved this book. I leave it to more erudite readers than myself to determine its value. I abandoned it with a slight pang because I felt I might be letting my co-hosts down with a lackluster discussion. But that was quickly relieved by losing myself in a book that did have what I was looking for – the next book on our Literary Wives list: The Aviator’s Wife, by Melanie Benjamin. Hope you’ll be back in August for the finale to this segment of the series.
Did you read this pick? What did you think?