When I saw that my library’s book group was reading A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick this month, I was happy for an excuse to pull this novel off my TBR shelf and finally read it (even though I ended up missing the discussion). My mother had enjoyed it and lent it to me. This dark, creepy novel of betrayal and revenge also fit in perfectly with my RIP XI Challenge this month!
As the novel opens in fall 1907 in rural Wisconsin, Ralph Truitt is nervously waiting on a train platform for his new wife to arrive from Chicago. Ralph is a very successful businessman in his 50’s who owns all of his town’s factories and industry, and most of its residents work for him in one capacity or another. Ralph, however, was lacking a wife, so he placed an ad in a Chicago newspaper looking for “a reliable wife.”
He received letters from several candidates, but the one he chose was Catherine Land. Her first letter to him described herself as “a simple, honest woman,” and the two had exchanged more letters. Now, she was on her way to him on the train, ready to become his wife.
As Catherine rides toward Ralph, her musings on the train are intriguing. She is a determined woman who says that all she needs from life are love and money. However, her actions on the train are puzzling: dressed in fine garments and jewelry, she takes everything off and tosses her beautiful clothes out the window. She dresses in a plain gray dress of low quality and sews her jewelry into its hem. It is clear that she is not as honest or as simple as she says.
We soon find out that the one item Catherine has brought with her, besides the cheap clothing and a tattered suitcase, is a bottle of poison, so it seems that she has some sort of plan in mind to kill Ralph. As the story unfolds, though, we have no idea why she plans to do this or what she is hiding from Ralph. Ralph treats her very kindly, and things seem to be going well between them, but there is that unspoken threat behind the scenes, adding a note of suspense and dread to the story.
Catherine’s plans for Ralph and her own background are revealed bit by bit, with plenty of surprises along the way. It turns out that Ralph wasn’t completely honest, either, and has his own surprises in store. As the novel progresses, the plot gets more and more complicated, with details of both their lives before they met each other and both of their secret plans gradually revealed.
I enjoyed this mildly suspenseful and unique story of two people both thinking they are conning or using the other. It is a dark story, set during a gray, snowy Wisconsin winter, with both main characters keeping secrets. There is a constant thread of sex throughout the novel, too, though it is not graphically depicted. Ralph is somewhat obsessed with sex, though he has denied himself for a long time, and Catherine has her own secrets in that regard. While the characters are not very likable (though they each have their redeeming moments), the plot of the novel is twisty and intriguing and pulls you along. It’s a dark and compelling story that is perfect for a cold, dreary fall or winter season.
291 pages, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill