A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

13th March 2010

He placed a notice in a Chicago paper, an advertisement for a “reliable wife.” She responded, saying that she was “a simple, honest woman.” She was, of course, anything but honest, and the only simple thing about her was her single-minded determination to marry this man and then kill him, slowly and carefully, leaving herself a wealthy widow. What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own.

I did not like this book. It read, to me, like one of the old Janette Oak Christian romance novels: “bad” woman finds “honorable but bad” man – both in need of saving, literally and figuratively. I could not relate to the characters. The more I learned about them, the less I liked them. Ralph Truitt at first reminded me of a Steinbeck character – alone, intensely sexual, guilty, seeking redemption but unable to let himself be free. Once you learn more about his character, though, his dark side is revealed. Usually it’s the other way around. The character is dark first and redemptive second. Catherine’s motivations and reversals of emotion seem too quick and without reason. Ralph’s son, Antonio, is a despicable character, fighting his own demons and unable to let himself love or be loved.

In the last 40 pages, Goolrick brings his novel to an unbelievable and unsatisfying conclusion. Antonio suddenly allows himself to try and feel love. Ralph reverts back to his former demonic self. And all, as the novel repeats over and over again, because “these things happen” in the long, terrible winters in Wisconsin. It seemed too convenient, too contrived. And then, in the midst of such ugliness and despair, there is one beautiful scene that feels like magical realism in an all-too-realistic, naturalistic novel. Catherine has studied and worked to plant a garden in the barren winter, and it comes to life before her eyes:

She moved her foot and looked down. The grass under her shoe turned green as she watched, and it grew away from her, grew greening until the whole of the patch where she stood was green and clipped and glowing in the golden light. The green wonder of the world filled her garden and spread out from her feet wherever she walked.

But, too little, too late. The scene feels tossed in almost as if Goolrick thought it was beautiful and threw it in as an afterthought. I don’t like inconsistency, and I certainly don’t like it in my characters. I finished the book, and it was an easy read (3 hours), but it was not satisfying or engaging. 1/5

  • Ouch!

    I don’t read Christian fiction but this sounds like a typical one. Just the title alone would prevent me reading though 😛

    • Yeah – it wasn’t a typical read for me, but it got good reviews on several other blogs, so I thought I’d venture in and try it. It wasn’t just awful – just not my cup of tea.

  • Interesting review. I commented on your When You Reach Me post that I don’t read reviews thoroughly, until after I’ve read the book.. but that only counts for those that I’ve already made up my mind to read.. just to keep the element of surprise. But for books I’m still deciding to read, I do pore over reviews, like this one. Which I’m thankful for because I’ve never seen a negative review of this book before, and your opinion just makes me glad that I didn’t pick this up as from the sound of it there are many more books much worthy of my time. Thanks!

    • You know, I hate giving flat-out negative reviews, but as I mentioned, I cannot stand characters that don’t act the way the author has written them to act. There has to be some impetus, something.

      In my opinion, yes, there are many other and, arguably, better books out there.

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  • I pore over what your review because this book has been all over the place. The reviews are split in the middle. I don’t mind unlikable characters but if the book is not engaging then I won’t read it.

    • I don’t mind unlikable characters, and looking back on this book, I’m not sure why I had such a visceral reaction. I guess because it felt formulaic in a sense – like Goolrich knew the ending and planned it out a ways, but then had to wrap it up really quickly. It threw me, and not in a good sense. However, I know Dolce Belleza really enjoyed it, so you might still give it a go. I wouldn’t mind sending it to you as it’s not a keeper for me.