Booking It Across the US | Wisconsin and A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick


August 13, 2013 by Heidi

Booking it Across the US

Welcome to Wisconsin!  Home of good cheese and good beer.  Is there anything more you need to know?  Yes?  They call water fountains bubblers.

Wisconsin Reads

Personal favorite?  Little House in the Big Woods by Lauran Ingalls Wilder 
What’s your favorite Wisconsin read?


A Reliable Wife by Robert GoolrickTitle: A Reliable Wife [Goodreads]
Author: Robert Goolrick [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary
Published: March 1st, 2009 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Format: Hardcover; 291 pages.
Source: Borrowed from my local library.

Rural Wisconsin, 1909. In the bitter cold, Ralph Truitt, a successful businessman, stands alone on a train platform waiting for the woman who answered his newspaper advertisement for “a reliable wife.” But when Catherine Land steps off the train from Chicago, she’s not the “simple, honest woman” that Ralph is expecting. She is both complex and devious, haunted by a terrible past and motivated by greed. Her plan is simple: she will win this man’s devotion, and then, ever so slowly, she will poison him and leave Wisconsin a wealthy widow. What she has not counted on, though, is that Truitt a passionate man with his own dark secrets has plans of his own for his new wife. Isolated on a remote estate and imprisoned by relentless snow, the story of Ralph and Catherine unfolds in unimaginable ways.

With echoes of “Wuthering Heights” and “Rebecca,” Robert Goolrick’s intoxicating debut novel delivers a classic tale of suspenseful seduction, set in a world that seems to have gone temporarily off its axis.

Here’s the thing I’m not sure people get: to be a tragedy, something has to be tragic.  Aka actually moving on some emotional level.  Aka you actually have to like/sympathize with/feel even remotely that any of the people involved deserve something better than what they get.  Ergo, A Reliable Wife is not a tragedy.  Unless you’re looking at the lost hours of my life I spent reading it because those were, I’m afraid, a bit tragic.

I went into A Reliable Wife a little unsure what to expect.  I knew my mother had read it–I didn’t know what her reaction was (she’s great with the non-spoilers).  I knew I had several friends who had read it, some of them loving Goolrick’s work, some of them looking rather disappointed.  It’s always fun to see which side of that divide I’ll fall, so when it came time to pick up a Wisconsin book it seemed A Reliable Wife called to me.  We started off as rocky as a mail-order marriage and ended as poorly as, well, as poorly as most dudes who get Catfished.  And dude got Catfished (this realization deserves restating as it is the only thing about this book that made me laugh).

I never thought I’d be one of those readers who reads only for happy endings, romance, or laughs, but after my experience with A Reliable Wife, I don’t mind saying that I’m much closer to that camp than the other.  Seriously, what is it with our cultures current fascination with all things miserable?  In recent years, it seems that nearly every really successful show on TV is populated with miserable characters (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Walking Dead, [I do realize these are all AMC shows, but let’s not act like network television has put out anything better] Girls, etc.).  I’ve quit watching all of them because despite the wonderful performances I just can’t stand sitting around for that chunk of time and watching horrible people do horrible things and either succeed or pout about their miserable lives.  I seriously can’t express how few shits I have to give about these people.  Check that, I can–none.  And that’s exactly where A Reliable Wife fits in.  It’s a soap opera all dressed up as something more high brow because of its historical setting and better writing, and because of this I can see exactly why it does have such a wide audience.  But I’m certainly not it.

Goolrick’s characters harbor at the crux of things two motivations: sex and money.  They are positively lecherous.  These were the types of characters whose heads I did not want to be in–it all read as rapey and cheap and disturbing.  And I can even handle that as an aspect in a book, but as the main driving force behind every entity it was too much.  The entire plot was of the ‘you reap what you sow’ variety, though largely expected and predictable.

Needless to say, A Reliable Wife was a poor choice for me, which is unfortunate as the general premise held so much promise in my mind–a woman who answers a personal ad, both sides having alternative motives–but there was no real depth.  For the three main personas involved, the only ‘depth’ of character came through their animalistic desires, leaving the reader largely unfeeling or without pity even when events from their pasts were revealed.  It is a book about revenge and desire, about tearing others down to make your own way, and living with the consequences. If you go to Wisconsin, make sure to pick up a different option to give you a feel for the country.  Unless the feeling you want is unclean and horrible.

I should have read Dairy Queen. *sigh*


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  1. I’m sorry you didn’t like this book! Robert Goolrick is one of my absolute favorites because I FEEL SO MANY THINGS when I read his doomed romances and his difficult family relationships and his difficult lives and the hardships he writes. I fell so fast and hard in love with this one and with the next one, Heading Out To Wonderful (don’t read it if you didn’t like this one, just don’t), I fell even harder. I felt they were so visual and sensory, and – well, I guess I can just say I loved everything about them. I’m one that fell on the other side of the divide and leads the line, I suppose.

    I do know that he writes from his own pain and hardships and difficulties in his own personal life because I have his memoir, which is TOUGH.

    I’m glad you gave this one a chance even if it wasn’t the book for you. For me, I bounce up and down when another of his books is coming out. I’m THAT person.

  2. I hope you still read Dairy Queen, Heidi. I absolutely LOVE that trilogy! :) Anyway, my grandmother read this earlier this summer and the plot and characters sounded so ridiculous that I made her tell me what happened every night after she finished reading for a bit. We laughed off the craziness of the story and though I can’t speak about this author’s writing style, I do think the plot was flimsy. (Soap opera really IS the best description of this!) Anyway, lovely, honest review, Heidi! Read DQ soon! 😀

  3. I’ve read and loved the Little House books, Caddie Woodlawn, and Dairy Queen. I think my mom actually owns A Reliable Wife, and I’ve been considering reading it. But, wow, your review has got me reconsidering that desire. I mean, maybe I still will? I don’t need to like my protagonists necessarily. And I don’t mind all doom and gloom – that is, if I know upfront what I’m getting into. Definitely don’t give up on Wisconsin reads, though! Dairy Queen is a fantastic series.

  4. Bonnie says:

    I’m doing a re-read of Little House in the Big Woods right now! Still need to read Dairy Queen and The Westing Game. :)
    I totally agree with you about The Reliable Wife, although I applaud you for actually being able to finish it. I don’t think I got halfway through when I realized I don’t give a crap less about these people. Great review though. Hope you’re having a great trip!

  5. Angie says:

    Oh my goodness, no thank you.

    Thanks for saving me from this one, Heidi.

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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.