Monday, December 19, 2011

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Some of my reader friends who have read or heard a number of my reviews tease me by saying that apparently I’ve never met I book I didn’t like. It’s true that I almost never review books that I think are bad; the truth is that I almost never even bother to finish books that I don’t like. Why take the time to read and review bad books when there are so many excellent ones out there. Well over thirty years ago when I was living with a reader who had a hard time not finishing a book once she had started it (as if she owed something to the book), I decided instead to codify my practice of letting books fall from my hands unless they gripped and informed me. Whether ten pages in, half way through, or even four hundred pages into a monster five hundred page novel, I loved the feeling of letting them float free and beginning something else. Better to waste four hundred pages of reading time than five hundred! No sense compounding the wasting of time.

I’m making an exception today, because the novel, A Reliable Wife, has been a national bestseller for sometime, and as a favor to readers, I want to warn them away from it. It’s billed as “a thrilling, juicy read,” “suspenseful,” “intoxicating,” “[a] glittering, poisoned ice cube of a tale.” Well, I have to admit that there is some suspense involved, and it is certainly a poisoned tale, but it is not a good one in any sense of the word. The characters, all of them, are utterly unbelievable, and some of the events described so preposterous that one wonders how or why an author would include them. Try to imagine a rich and successful man who, upon finding that his mail-order bride is trying to poison him, simply allows the slow poisoning to continue, knowing he is dying, but out of some sort of perverse love or loyalty, he turns his body over to the nursing care of his slayer. Or try to picture this same couple, living together and in some distorted way loving each other, witnessing a death that is horrible (if deserved), but then speaking not a word to each other for days. Eating together, living together, but absolutely mute in each other’s presence.

I often criticize male writers for what I see as a failure to create real women characters, but I would have to say that in this novel, Catherine Lane, the mail-order bride, is the most believable of all the characters, and one with whom the reader can occasionally sympathize. But to say she is the most believable of the characters is not to say much. The most unbelievable character is the incredibly wealthy Ralph Truitt who owns most of the town and affects the economic livelihood not only of those townspeople who work for him but of virtually all of them. For reasons I won’t even try to explain, this man who could choose between many women, either local or from a city or country of his choice, places an ad in a Chicago newspaper looking for a reliable wife, and what do you know, a beautiful and apparently innocent women answers his ad. Not, at least for this reader, a very believable beginning, and yet I was able (for a time) to suspend disbelief. But this was only the first of a series of events that would tax the credulity of most serious readers.

As mysteries go, this one does keep the reader turning pages, but mostly because almost all of the important information is withheld from him—hidden cards in the hands off a conniving author who tricks the reader by withholding information and then springing it on him as a magician would pull rabbits from a hat. Good mysteries manage to drop clues, allow the reader to make inferences and to help in the solving of the mystery. Not Goolrick; he keeps the facts close to his vest, and uses them every hundred pages or so to pounce on the reader with some new outrageous revelation.

So, if this is a bad book, why has it gotten so much press and sold so many copies? Well, it is filled to the brim with steamy (unbelievable) sex. There is a beautiful woman in distress, never mind that she brings the distress on herself. There are many twists and turns, illegitimate children, near-incestuous love affairs, European-style palaces built in an icebound Midwestern town. And lets face it, many people read precisely because the story is so extraordinary, so unlike lived-life.

I have to question my own motives in finishing the book at all. NPR’s Morning Edition called the book engrossing and addictive, and I suppose it is addictive. Even when I was angriest with the book and the author, I wanted to find out what would happen. NPR also says the book “Will leave you both chilled and satisfied.” It left me cold and profoundly unsatisfied.

Incidentally, it’s not quite true that I never give books negative reviews. I thought that the apparently forever bestseller, The Help, was exploitative and unconvincing, and that in many ways it whitewashed the very racism it was allegedly exposing. Minrose Gwin wrote a far better novel, The Queen of Palmyra, about the same time period, and I suspect it failed to be a bestseller precisely because it was so much truer—so much less glitter and without a happy ending. It will not be made into a movie as The Help was, but that says more about general movie-going audiences than it does about the quality of the books.

I also reviewed one of the many Harry Potter novels, partly because the religious right was so up in arms about the witchcraft element of those entertaining if rather shallow books. I noted that compared to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter was rather pale both in content and writing expertise. So my record is not pure; I have met books I don’t like, or don’t like much. I simply refuse to finish them, and it would seem unfair to review a book I had not even bothered to finish.

And now I intend to return to my regular ways and review almost only books that I think are really good, and why not, there are so many of them.

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