Literary Wives: A Reliable Wife

I picked up A Reliable Wife (2009) by Robert Goolrick expecting a story similar to the charming children’s book Sarah, Plain and Tall (1985) by Patricia MacLachlan.  The first few pages threatened to deliver just such a story.  I anticipated this, hoping that the anxious man, Ralph Truitt, waiting on the train platform, would find himself a wife he could love and trust, a wife who would help him at home, and that such a charming story would eventually lead to a sweet and deep romance in which looks would not matter.

Boy was I wrong.  I guess I should’ve let the front cover tell me more before I jumped to wholesome conclusions.  This novel ended up being the exact opposite of this sweet picture I had hoped to experience.  Instead, the woman who arrives in response to Ralph’s newspaper ad for “a reliable wife,” is a fraud.  Catherine comes under false pretenses, and she is planning to kill him.  It is an interesting premise, and makes for an exciting story, but I ended up strongly disliking this book.

a reliable wife cover
I won’t say I hated it, because my emotions didn’t get that strong, but I did not like it.  The biggest reason for this is the message it sends about wives.  As you know, this book is part of the Literary Wives series, hosted by Ariel, Audra, Angela, and me.  (Please check out their blogs today by clicking on their linked names to see more about this book.  We want our posts to turn into a conversation, including you and your blogs.  Feel free to join in and post about the book.)

We are exploring these questions:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

What this book says about what it means to be a wife is that a wife is good for sex, and that’s about it.  There isn’t one page of this novel that doesn’t refer to sex in some way or another, and as the plot progresses, it only gets more prominent.

We find out that Catherine has been a prostitute, a position she found herself forced to assume as an orphan and older sister.  I sympathize with that.  But she uses it to deceive Ralph, who isn’t the greatest guy either.  (Maybe they deserve each other.)  She is duping him for his money, and because she happens to be intimately involved with his estranged son, she and the son hatch the plan for her to answer Ralph’s ad, marry him, and then poison him.  Then together they will share the fortune, for Ralph is a wealthy man.

Yet Catherine falls in love with Ralph and cannot go through with it, although she almost does.  She poisons him, to the point of near-death, then backs off.  She cannot kill him, and she realizes that she loves him.

But it is what this love grows from that bothers me.  Their relationship seems to be solely based on sex.  And they have sex every single night!  And this brings them closer together and this prevents her from carrying out her plan.  It causes her to choose Ralph over his scheming son.  But I just couldn’t believe it.  Yes, sex is important to a relationship, but it isn’t the sole foundation for one.  Nor is it a wife’s only offering to a relationship.  Because her relationship with Ralph is based on sex and not much more, she again becomes a prostitute, but this time she’s legitimate because there is a ring on her finger and only one man.  The message to me, from this book, was that wives are prostitutes.  We are reminded that “She wanted to please; it was her profession” (p. 161).  I disagree, and I don’t believe that wives are meant to please husbands (only physically) without some measure of reciprocation.

Despite this blatant message, not surprisingly written by a male author, there are some interesting ideas from the novel.  I did appreciate this quote, although the overall plot did not seem to explore it: “The virtues of the body are reserved for those who are fair of face and strong of body, but the virtues of the heart, being goodness and kindness and compassion, are available to anybody” (p. 58).

There is also a theme of abuse, as Ralph was rough with his son (likely not really his biological son because his former wife cheated on him).  The son has not turned out well, especially after being abused and leaving home as a teenager.  We see the effect of his Father’s abuse on him.  “Ever since Truitt had stopped torturing him, ever since he had been strong enough to run away, he had done nothing but torture himself” (p. 262-263).  I connected to that idea because of my own traumatic childhood.  I’ve spent years replaying the unkind things that were said to me, so instead of getting away from the emotional abuse, I continued to allow it to hurt me.  That self-talk is just as destructive as being in the abusive situation.  I’ve learned through therapy to change my talk and to be kinder to myself, although I still struggle with that.

This abuse is described eloquently in the end.  “It was just a story of how the bitter cold gets into your bones and never leaves you, of how the memories get into your heart and never leave you alone, of the pain and the bitterness of what happens to you when you’re small and have no defenses but still know evil when it happens, of secrets about evil you have no one to tell, of the life you live in secret, knowing your own pain and the pain of others but helpless to do anything other than the things you do, and the end it all comes to” (p. 280).

This quote turns the book into one I would like to read and a book that has actual ideas, rather than just sex, sex, sex; however, the rest of it didn’t deliver.  It tried, but it failed.

If you’d like to know more about the book, please visit this link: http://www.workman.com/products/9781565129771/.  Or this one:  http://www.reliablewife.net/.

What did you think of A Reliable Wife?

The next book we will be reading is The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin.  We will post about it on August 1.  Please check out my Literary Wives page for more information about the series, the books we are reading, and the bloggers.

the aviator's wife cover

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52 thoughts on “Literary Wives: A Reliable Wife

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  1. I’m always interested in reading what other people “don’t like” or “hate”. I don’t ever do that with vacation rentals or restaurants, but always with books! I’m looking for “A Reliable Wife” right now so that I can read it this week and let you know my thoughts. Thanks for sharing your review.

  2. Yes, Emily, I quite agree. I despised this book after reading it the first time about 3 years ago. I even tortured myself and reread it for this series! I knew this time around about the sex and tried to just skim those parts, which cut down the reading time significantly!! There’s so much!! I did a bit of research on Goolrick and learned this is his first fiction novel, his first book is an autobiography and one of the goodreads reviewers stated that his parents ranked as much worse than Jeannette Walls’s (The Glass Castle), Frank McCourt’s (Angela’s Ashes), or Mary Karr’s (The Liars’ Club). For me, that put a whole new perspective on this book–perhaps it is a result of his own abuse and desolation growing up and/or as an adult… I don’t know. I tried to analyze it further the second time around, but I still STRONGLY dislike this book, and that is very rare for me. So I am glad to see I am not the only one! Thank you! 🙂

    1. Lynn, I’m so glad you weighed in, and now the exploration of abuse makes sense given Goolrick’s past. Even after reading this, I was interested in reading his memoir. It sounded interesting. And I don’t know how you skipped the sex parts! They are literally on every single page. Ha ha. Thanks for rereading, and I feel bad for having tortured you with it again!

  3. My book club just finished reading The Aviator’s Wife so I’ll be interested in what you have to say about that one August 1. Your review of this book doesn’t make me want to run out and read it. So, thank you for saving me the time since I have read the back of the book several times.

    1. You’re welcome. I do worry that perhaps others would like this one and I’m “ruining” your chance at reading it. It was a bestseller, but to me that usually means nothing!

      1. Of interest, we read The Aviator’s Wife because we’d read The Paris Wife and really liked it (we’re all English teachers–well, all but one of us and we adopt her). And all but one of us (me) love Hemingway. I’ve found your review of that one and agree with it in many ways about what it said about their marriage. What I found intriguing about TPW was how it gave me at least a different appreciation for Hemingway. Still don’t like him all that much, but now I can add a layer to my understanding of him. I think now I’ll be interested in how you will compare Hadley and Anne Lindbergh considering their contemporary time period. I’ll stop now, though I’d love to keep going, and wait until you post in August!

        1. I’m so excited to read it now! I didn’t realize it was about Anne Lindbergh. It looks like all of our books (except A Reliable Wife) are based on a real person. That should make for some interesting and good comparison/discussion. I did five posts on Hemingway a few weeks ago (“Hemingway Week”). Yeah, he isn’t the greatest guy, but he did do some good work. I’m not a big fan either, but I took a class on him. It was a good way to become familiar with him.

  4. You know, I purchased The Reliable Wife on a recommendation, but it’s been sitting in my bookshelf for a few years already, completely untouched. I’ve been curious about it, but never really enough to pick it up before any of my other books. Thank you for putting up this review! It definitely gave me more insight as to what I’ll be reading. I’m debating whether I’ll try and give it a chance, or just take it to the used book store. 🙂

    1. LOL! I have done that with a few books. I think some of them came from the thrift store, sat forever, and then maybe I read the first chapter and decided that it wasn’t for me.

      1. Lol! I’m glad to see I’m not alone! I think I must have an entire shelf dedicated to books like that, that have yet to be given any attention.

        1. Oh, after working 4 years at Borders and having the opportunity to get FREE ARCs, etc., plus books for $.50-$1.00 all the time…I “wish” I only had one shelf of books awaiting my attention! 😉 It could be worse…

            1. To finish…and all our bookcases are filled! Mental note: if you are a voracious reader and book buyer, probably a bad idea to pair up and live with another one! LOL

  5. So glad you stated the main issue right up front, Emily. Wife=sex — that just about says it all, right? The more I’m thinking about it, this book seems to be some weird male fantasy novel……don’t much want to go there, thanks. 🙂

    Your point about what the root of the relationship (sex) made me think, because now I see that Catherine really trades one form of sexual bondage (to Antonio) for another, and because it is in marriage, it is sanctioned and “ok”, which I really have a problem with. Once a prostitute, always a prostitute. No effort to open a door for Catherine to become someone other than who she’s always been, no effort to search out and develop her skills. Didn’t she dream of the garden? Might this not have been worked in in such a way that she became a more fully realized PERSON, rather than a simple sex object? I guess that is too much to ask for. It could have been so much more, as you discuss in re: the abuse and the idea of a heart of kindness…..but you’re right. It just doesn’t deliver.

    1. Yeah, the possibility for good and good themes is not carried out. And it was bothersome that wife=sex. And I think you articulated it even better with the idea that she is not allowed to change. There should be the possibility of redemption for her because she marries and learns to love, but it is all based in the same stuff that her previous life was, so it just didn’t work for me.

    2. Angela, your comment has also sparked the thought that perhaps Ralph didn’t really want a reliable wife. That is what he advertised, but his sex addiction had not gone away, nor had he really changed his behavior toward his son, despite the fact that the ploy for a wife was ostensibly to get his son back. Maybe the novel is telling us that people don’t change (I believe they CAN, but I also see this as a truth), and that men don’t really want reliable wives. They would be happy with “prostitutes.”

      1. To me, I wondered if the ‘reliable wife’ was meant to be a twist on that idea, as Catherine was v reliably a sexually available wife. She was reliable in many ways that were twisted, too: she did what Ralph wanted her to, and she was loyal to him after deciding to betray her lover. The non-stop sex obsession was tiresome to me — I felt very aware I was reading a book by a man — to the point where I felt like he was making sure we all knew this was a male take on the gothic-y genre.

        1. Audra, good points. It was obvious that the author was a man, and perhaps he wanted it that way? I can see the reliable word being purposefully manipulated now that you mention it, to mean reliable sexually. But why that message? I guess I’m still not sure of the value in such a novel. Maybe this goes back to my idea that people don’t change. Is that the point? In this I see the grim and dark theme playing a role, but to me, from studying humanities and a teeny bit of architecture, gothic means height and light. Does gothic mean something else for novels? I don’t know a lot about this genre.

          1. You know, I don’t know the formal lit definition of gothic is, but I associate it with a very dark mood/style (like the Brontes), or Victorian-ish horror like Dracula. Even more, really, I think A Reliable Wife is more like classic noir — no one is a hero, there’s heavy emphasis on sex/drugs/seediness — and while noir is typically 1930s-ish – 1950s-ish, I think there’s a real overlap in styles here.

            Someone on my blog mentioned that this book had many elements from Goolrick’s real life, and when I googled, it turns out there IS a lot of overlap between his life and the experiences of both Catherine and Ralph. He was horribly abused as a child (sexually, I think), and after the end of two very bad relationships (one with a man, one with a woman), he himself has never shared a bed with someone since.

            I know you’re not supposed to read an author’s life in their fiction, but…that’s a hard one to ignore. So in some ways, the messages that seem so baffling might be more personal. Perhaps this is a giant wishful letter — that the ugliest people with the worst scars and most terrible choices can find happiness in the end…? (That’s v Gothic, incidentally — I think about Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. It’d be like the two of them being able to happily get on in a marriage together rather than their own tragic ends.)

            1. Yes! Wuthering Heights. I think you might be onto something. Now I want to reread that one (it is on my BBC list). And I agree that it is hard to ignore the author’s past in this case. It also makes me sad, knowing the horrible abuse Goolrick suffered, but also knowing that he doesn’t see much hope of redemption for himself, if he is truly Ralph. I think all of the characters deserved better, and they could have done better, but didn’t. I guess Ralph did forgive Catherine, partly because of sex and partly because he really wanted to die.

              Wow. The information about Goolrick really changes my view and I hope that in real life he has been able to make better sense of his past and where he is going than it seemed Ralph did.

          2. I did think that Goolrick’s many repetitions of “Such things happen” and “Such things happened,” was meant to state that people don’t/can’t change, that people really have no control over what happens to them and the state in which these “happenings” leave them. That helplessness/hopelessness, perhaps that is more noir?

            1. Ah, I see. I guess that explains why I don’t care for the style then. I disagree with that idea of no control. I mean, of course there are things over which we have no control, but we can choose how we react or act.

      2. Emily, I think you and I might have a similar perspective because we have experienced abuse and have had to heal from it. I just left a reply to Audra’s comment on my post about her reference on your site to Goolrick’s own background. You have to work to break the cycle. I appreciate that he may be working through some of his own demons in the writing of the novel; however, I think the outcome he paints is rather bleak as far as the individual’s responsibility to work towards healing and to break the cycle. Abuse is never ok, and one’s own victimization is no excuse for perpetuating it. This seems to be the message the book sends — that little if any true change is possible. I wholly disagree. Change is possible and necessary, but it depends upon each individual to effect this and to break the bonds of control others have tried to exert. I don’t know about reliable…..I think it is used in an ironic way, perhaps, in that in the world of this novel, there is no such thing as reliability. No person can be counted on. I don’t know…..

        1. I would agree, Angela, “reliable” was definitely misleading, if not a total misnomer. In my opinion, the only ways in which Catherine was “reliable” was to be totally deceitful, duplicitous, hypocritical, and even murderous, at least until she did finally grow to truly care about Ralph and consciously choose him over Tony (Though she was murderous then, as she stabbed him!). As some have noted she was “reliable” in providing nightly sex to Ralph, but even in that she was hypocritical, pretending not to be skilled in love-making so he would believe her to be a “simple honest woman” (page 12). Although I admit to thinking that Ralph may have to a great degree simply gotten what he deserved since he was rather obviously a selfish greedy bastard with nothing more than sick and twisted lascivious thoughts running through his mind…for once he did NOT get whatever he wanted…

        2. I saw your comment, Angela, and I appreciate you sharing your experience along with mine. As we explore the term “reliable,” I am beginning to wonder if the book was titled thus simply because of the newspaper ad, but perhaps there really is no set meaning. I’m now beginning to wonder if the author really had a purpose in using the term ironically or seriously, but I guess what the author intended doesn’t matter. Maybe the book doesn’t work for us because it can’t be explained. Maybe I’m just making excuses now! But then I thought about the term “reliable” in relation to Ralph’s first wife, and in that we can see why reliability would be important to him and why that would be so tied to sex.

          But I agree that the book sends the message that people don’t change, but they can and they do, hopefully. (I believe that they can, for that is the premise of my faith as a Christian, but I also feel cynical about this at times because I’ve seen so little change in my own situation, with abuse.) Anyway, it is ultimately a sad end for Ralph to see that he doesn’t change. His sex addiction continues, and he perpetrates the abuse of his son again. What bothered me about that fight at the end was that it was written in a way (the rape) that we the readers would feel sympathetic toward Ralph, but Tony is the child, his child, and a victim. I would’ve liked to see Tony rise above his childhood and be a better man than his father.

  6. I was looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this as I picked it up a couple of years ago and it is one of the handful of books I’ve read recently that I just couldn’t finish. I just disliked the two main characters so much. Usually there’s some redeeming quality or some interesting complexity to a “bad” character but there wasn’t enough in either of the two for me to keep going.

    1. It sounds like we are in agreement on this one! Did you read Angela’s review on Persephone Writes? She didn’t finish it either, and said similar things to what you said.

  7. I loved this one, but I found it in the genre of noir novels about terrible marriages and wives. (I was reminded a bit of Mildred Pierce, randomly!) But as a novel of a marriage, or redemption, it’s not there — unless you consider Ralph’s ultimate forgiveness as the big redemption.

          1. guilty!

            Can’t wait to see what you think of The Aviator’s Wife — I really liked the book, but kind of can’t stand Anne. It’s hard to judge a person who was real through a fictional narrative, and I think Benjamin made her very human, but as time has gone on, I feel like she really sold out — much like Alice in American Wife.

  8. Sounds like all the characters in this book are villains who don’t redeem themselves to the reader and that seems rather boring. I find it boring when a character is flat and doesn’t change. That was a big problem with reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (ridiculous) saga. None of the characters ever learned their life-lessons and just repeated them throughout. Cycles of abuse are a real problem as the abused often turn into abusers, but it sounds like the author didn’t tackle this issue at all, nor create the depth of his characters to find a way to break the cycle. Thanks for the wife=sex bit too, what a narrow view of a wife, a woman, or of sex for that matter. Perhaps there are books out there written by women where husbands=sex, but I have to admit, I’ve never come across one and wouldn’t like it if I did. I’m glad to not have read this one, but I’m looking forward to The Aviator’s Wife. I think I’ll pick it up and read along since I’m not in school this summer and have the time. (Yay!) I have high hopes for it, though I’m not sure why.

    1. I have high hopes for the next one too, and I’m glad you are reading along! I agree with what you’ve said about characters not being redeemed. It is hard to know why one is reading if there is no change. One of my professors always said conflict and resolution! I won’t be trying the Wheel of Time. Thanks for warning me!

  9. I keep coming back to the setting in this one, too, and the stories Goolrick tells of the townspeople going crazy in the winter, and murdering their relatives, etc. That’s a common experience in the West (everywhere out west we’ve lived, I’ve heard stories of this gruesome wintertime murders), and I also wonder if Catherine and Ralph are just acting out their own twisted tale of winter stircrazy. (Right down to the murder of a family member.) In fact, it makes me wonder, if he didn’t have Catherine as a wife, and the catharsis, so to speak, of his confrontation with Antonio, if he might have gone crazy and murdered someone. Had he gotten his truly ‘reliable wife’ — an honest, non-criminal woman — would he have killed her?

    1. I like that interpretation too, especially given that at the end of the book Goolrick writes about that craziness and the town’s happenings as central to the novel. I realized that something was going on there, with all of the little vignettes, but they were so small and seemed to not connect to the bigger plot. Now you’ve connected them for me. Thanks!

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