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.
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.
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.