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Sunday, November 24, 2013

BPL Book Discussion: A Reliable Wife

Last Monday we met to discuss A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick, a very popular book club choice.  Here is the publisher's summary:

Rural Wisconsin, 1909. In the bitter cold, Ralph Truitt, a successful businessman, stands alone on a train platform waiting for the woman who answered his newspaper advertisement for "a reliable wife." But when Catherine Land steps off the train from Chicago, she's not the "simple, honest woman" that Ralph is expecting. She is both complex and devious, haunted by a terrible past and motivated by greed.
Her plan is simple: she will win this man's devotion, and then, ever so slowly, she will poison him and leave Wisconsin a wealthy widow. What she has not counted on, though, is that Truitt — a passionate man with his own dark secrets —has plans of his own for his new wife. Isolated on a remote estate and imprisoned by relentless snow, the story of Ralph and Catherine unfolds in unimaginable ways.
With echoes of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, Robert Goolrick's intoxicating debut novel delivers a classic tale of suspenseful seduction, set in a world that seems to have gone temporarily off its axis.
 Now before I begin our discussion report, I do want to say a few things about the book.  It is a historical, psychological thriller with lots of sex and violence.  Actually, it has lots of lust paired with actual sex. My ladies were fine with it, as you will see, but I would say this is not a great choice for more sensitive groups. I think this book is best described as a train wreck.  We actually said this in the discussion.  You know you should stop being involved, but you literally cannot look away. It was my kind of book for sure and we had a great discussion, but The Art of Racing in the Rain this is not.

On to the discussion:

  • 8 liked the book, 5 disliked, and 2 were so-so
  • Those who liked the book:
    • I was hooked by page 15
    • I enjoyed the overall themes of love and whether or not we can rewrite the past.
    • I was prepared to dislike this book, but I got hooked early and found the moral ambiguity of the story utterly fascinating.
    • It felt real.
    • The settings, both the dead of winter in upper Wisconsin and the glitz of St. Louis, were engulfing.
    • I loved the way he brought in the plot twists into the storyline--brilliant!
    • I liked that the public library was Catherine’s refuge from her tough life.
  • Those who disliked the book:
    • I don’t know why I disliked it, I just did.
    • The characters were nasty, devious, and disgusting. I couldn’t relate to them, but even worse, I did not like them.
    • It was too sad
    • There was no morality
    • I don’t like when men write about women
    • I couldn’t sympathize
  • [I broke in with that last comment because you are not supposed to sympathize with these characters; you are simply meant to observe them; therefore if you disliked the book for this reason, that just means it is not the book for you. I tried to use this as a chance to have the participants think about their own reading preferences.]
  • Those who were so-so:
    • I liked the book, especially the first scene on the train platform. But I got tired of his descriptions at times, and felt they often went on a page too long.
    • I couldn’t empathize, which I usually need to like a book, but I had to keep reading to see what happened.
  • Question: Who is the real Catherine Land and do we ever see her?
    • There were so many lies pled on top of each other here, it was hard to keep them straight.  I had no idea what to believe.
    • I think at the book’s end she became her true self.
    • After she decided to stop poisoning Ralph she revealed her true self.
    • Seeing her with her sister; that was the real Catherine to me.
    • It was interesting to see how different Catherine was with Antonio vs when she was with Ralph.  We become the people we are based on who are are with at the time.  I see it with myself; I act differently with different people.
    • Ralph brings something good out of Catherine even though he is not all good himself.
    • I am not sure about Catherine.  Her main motivation was to find love and money. She found it, but is that the “real” Catherine now, or just the satisfied Catherine.
    • I am concerned more about what kind of mother she will be.
  • Question: Is there hope at the end of the book?
    • The ending was well written.  All three of the main characters are extremely flawed, all three are responsible for the death of Antonio, even Antonio himself.  Interestingly, he is the only one who refused to change, so he died and Catherine and Ralph lived.  I think that says there is hope for those who are willing to change.
    • I agree.  Catherine and Ralph are willing to solider on and find a way despite the horrors and difficulties of their lives.
    • Ralph accepts her even though he knew all about Catherine and Antonio.  It reminded me of Pretty Woman and that is a hopeful story.
  • Some general comments that came as this line of questioning petered out that I wanted to share:
    • All three characters wanted their cake and to eat it too.
    • Catherine saved Ralph (even though she was also the one killing him with poison) but she could not save Antonio.
    • Ralph and Catherine both appreciate true beauty, Antonio appreciates the facade.
  • Question: Why does Ralph allow himself to be poisoned?
    • He cannot punish himself enough for what happened to his first wife. He felt he deserved what was coming to him.
    • He punished himself with forced celibacy and by isolating himself.  It wasn’t enough to bring him absolution.
    • His mother wrecked him from the start. He was doomed.
    • Catherine is the one who realizes that he deserves a second chance.
    • Catherine was not a good person but she was also not a murderer.
  • Catherine and Alice
    • This was a foreshadowing of Antonio’s demise.  Catherine couldn’t save her sister, so why would Antonio be different?
    • There are many parallels between Alice and Antonio and they go deeper than the first letter of their names.
    • Catherine tried to give Alice a good life, but it wasn’t enough.
    • Catherine’s experience with Alice’s death was very similar to Ralph’s experience with Emilia’s death.
  • Catherine’s Secret Garden
    • This a a raw book, it is down and dirty, but a garden has beauty and needs nurturing. The garden was a sign that spring was coming, both the season, and the spring of Catherine’s life.
    • The book ends with spring and with Catherine pregnant with Ralph’s baby.
    • Her dreams of the secret garden gives her purpose.
    • The garden is a sign of hope in the story.  Catherine is pregnant, the house is filling up with more servants.
    • The end is cold but now without threat because spring is just around the corner.  Catherine and Ralph had threatened each other but now they come together.
    • I liked the line, “Living takes time.”
  • People still wanted to talk about the ending more
    • I thought the ending seemed too happy for the book.
    • I disagree. I felt troubled and uneasy about the fact that it seemed so happy.  After everything they have been through it can’t be that easy.
    • I liked the ending because I liked Catherine and Ralph together.  They were not bad people deep down, they just had bad things happen to them.  All of their secrets and lies came out in the end and they still accepted each other.
    • The crazy and bad lies were all in their way, now they are gone.
    • But, this also seems like Ralph’s story with his first wife starting all over again...maybe?
    • Well, unlike Ralph and Emilia, Catherine is willing to work for the garden and life.  Emilia was not, so maybe this time the story will have a happy ending.
  • Does Catherine live up to Ralph’s definition of a “reliable wife?”
    • Yes: 8 people, the rest abstained because were not sure.  We had one definitive no, “not according to my definition.”
    • I think she is reliable because she saves Ralph’s life: literally and figuratively.  
    • Catherine is probably the most honest person in the book.
    • Someone read her letter to Ralph from page 12 where she is lying about her life as a missionary’s daughter, but if you go back to the same letter we think is a lie after you finish the entire book, she is actually revealing her true self.
    • He wanted someone just to be there but he got so much more.
    • They were each other’s problems but also ended up solving each other’s problems.
  • What’s with Catherine and Antonio as a couple?
    • It was very shocking to find out that they knew each other.
    • Did they love each other? Yes Catherine loved him, and Antonio did love her in his own way.
    • I don’t think they loved each other but they were useful to each other.  Catherine taught Antonio how to be a proper gentleman and he made Catherine feel younger.
  • Exaggerations in the book
    • Everything in this book was exaggerated.  The wealth of Ralph, the setting, the sex.  But it helped to remind us that we were not supposed to relate to the characters.
    • There were many.  We listed some:
      • Mrs Larsen’s cooking
      • the weather
      • accident at the beginning of the book.
      • also the ending accident that caused Antonio’s death
      • life in St. Louis
      • sex
      • madness
      • wealth
  • There are many side stories about madness and violence throughout the book.  Why?
    • It highlighted the cruelty and madness in all of their lives
    • Catherine and Ralph are the “last men standing.”
    • These vignettes grounded the story and made it more believable.  
    • These side stories also mirror the troubles in Catherine and Ralph’s life.  In both cases these problems are no one’s fault but everyone is responsible.
    • Isolation is a huge theme here and the vignettes emphasize that.
  • Final Comments
    • Forgive each other and you can move forward.  You forgive yourself and accept who you are and you can live.
    • Ralph’s last words echo this, “such things happen.” He is accepting and moving on.
    • So much lust in this book.  Lust for people, things, and power.
    • Nothing is clear cut here at all.
    • Interesting because Catherine hates “middles.”  She loves beginnings and endings but can’t stand the middle.  This entire book is forcing Catherine and us to deal with the ambiguity of the middle.
    • I enjoyed the contrast between city and rural life at that time.  Life was hard for everyone then.
  • We always end with words or phrases to describe the book:
    • hopeful
    • erotic
    • historical suspense
    • throughout provoking
    • ambiguous
    • cold
    • selfish
    • exaggeration
    • compelling
    • unsympathetic characters
    • dysfunctional family
    • sad
    • self revealing: as I was reading about these people I thought about myself and my own past mistakes.

Readalikes: As we mentioned above, the key to whether or not you would enjoy this book lies in this basic fact-- you are meant to observe the characters more than relate to them.  No one comes out of this story "the good guy." These are deeply flawed and scarred people who are willing to stay married despite it all, but as many of us said, so, what we couldn't stop reading to find out what happened.

Talking about the book this way, I would make a perfect readalike suggestion this way: A Reliable Wife is a historical version of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  Seriously.  If you liked Gone Girl, this book will appeal to you. You can also click here for my review of Gone Girl where you will find other readalike suggestions.  In fact, I went back to my Gone Girl review and found that I used these 3 words to describe the book: "twisted, shifting points of view, uneasy atmosphere," and these also perfectly apply to A Reliable Wife.

Roz Reisner on NoveList offers two really great suggestions:
  • A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan: "Readers who enjoyed the shivery psychological suspense of A Reliable Wife may also like this novel, set in a small town during a diphtheria epidemic. Both novels are set in late 19th century Wisconsin and focus on characters with dark secrets."
  • Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian: "Secrets of Eden also explores the dark side of a marriage in a small town and the third party whose presence is a catalyst for trouble. Bohjalian's characters are also not what they seem and will keep the reader guessing their motivations."
These are great suggestions of popular titles also worthy of being read for a discussion group.

Another title I would add to Roz's suggestions which is also a psychological thriller that is compelling and revolved around familial deception is The Expats by Chris Pavone [which has been on my to-read list for awhile now].

If you want to know more about the place and time, Goolrick suggests reading Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, which has become quite a cult classic.

Finally, this novel plays homage to many classic Gothic stories.  The similarities to Rebecca are too numerous to ignore.  Wuthering Heights and The Secret Garden are also echoed in the story.  And a newer Gothic tale which revolves around family dysfunction and a plot twist filled story with unreliable narrators and deeply flawed protagonists is The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.  Any of these titles is a good choice.


Amelia Elizabeth said...

My book group read this book in September and we all came to the similar feeling that we liked the story, but really disliked the people.

Kimberly said...

I have been awaiting your discussion notes and have been glad to read them on this snowy, gray morning. I actually had the opportunity to see Wisconsin Death Trip as I began reading this book, and the photos it contains helps clarify many aspects of the novel. However, some time later I read Barbara Ehrenreich's book Bright-Sided in which she provides a history of the Calvinist-type religious attitudes of the times in which Goolrich sets his novel before explaining the revisionist movements that led to "positive thinking." Goolrich's novel has nothing to do with Ehrenreich's topic, but her introductory history truly made me consider the novel in light of her assessment of those American times.

I have not been able to convince any book group with which I've worked to undertake discussion of this novel and wish I could have attended your session. I'm glad you have a group who can undertake the challenge of books about dark topics with the understanding that (if well written) they can illuminate human histories and behaviors.