A Reliable Wife
Publication Date: March 31, 2009
In his lyrical and stunning debut novel, A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick sets his suspenseful story with this uncomplicated sentence, “I am a simple and honest woman.” Right then and there, we can guess that Ralph Truitt, Goolrick’s stoic and taciturn hero, will get a lot more than he bargained for from Catherine Land, the woman who responded to his personal ad for “a reliable wife.”
Set during the early part of the 20th century in desolate Wisconsin, we learn that Truitt has suffered a terrible and personal misfortune. Alone for almost twenty years, loneliness plagues and drives him to acquire another wife. A successful and pragmatic businessman, he isn’t seeking love, but desires a companion who can read poetry to him and fulfill his repressed sexual needs. That prospective bride, we learn early on, has a dark past and she is motivated by greed. Catherine has no intention to stay long in Wisconsin or to be married. Her plan is simple: Poison Truitt once she becomes his wife and leave the state a wealthy widow.
These plans are foiled when Truitt is injured in an accident the same day they meet. Patiently nursing him back to health, Catherine plays the role of missionary’s daughter–her cover story–to perfection and waits for the right time to move forward with her scheme. However, simple plans never turn out that easily. Before they marry, Truitt confesses his past and previous bad marriage and asks Catherine for a favor after they marry: To travel to St. Louis and bring back his long-lost son, Antonio.
Although the plot appears to be straightforward, Goolrick sprinkles his story with intricate twists. During Catherine’s stay in St. Louis, we discover all the down and dirty details of her past, and in many ways, the potential murderess becomes a sympathetic character with pangs of conscious. Goolrick gives us a glimpse of this possible turn in nature:
And she though of Truitt, of his simplicity and trust. And, oddly, she thought of his body, and the nights they had spent together. His body was not young, but richly scented and textured, and somehow familiar to her. He was a body of size without menace. He had never caused her pain. She wasn’t sure the nights had been a pleasure to her, she wasn’t sure she knew what pleasure was anymore, but she knew they had been something to Truitt, some kind of release from his private agony. A homecoming. And, as always when she had given pleasure, she was happy to have given it. She knew the cost of solace in this world. She knew its rarity.
And it is this section of the story, we discover a highly intelligent and sensitive woman whose circumstances have led her to commit questionable acts just to survive. Yet there is much more to Catherine, she is capable of love.
Goolrick’s male characters, Truitt and Antonio, although not as as clearly defined as Catherine, are equally intriguing. We can assume that Ralph is not telling Catherine the entire story behind his previous marriage and his relationship with Antonio. As for the prodigal son, who is driven by lust for money and flesh, we wonder and hope that he, like Catherine, finds redemption.
A Reliable Wife is a fast read, but not because of the simplicity of the story or prose. Goolrick writes in an intoxicating manner that leaves one wanting more. Once the denouement is finally reached, you wish it had never ended and that it would continue forever.