Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

published 2009

set in 1907










With the letter she had sent a photograph of herself, and he could feel the tattered edge of it with his thumb as he raised his hat to one more person, saw, from the corner of his eyes, one more person gauge the unusual sobriety and richness of his black suit and strong boots and fur-collared overcoat. His thumb caressed her face. His eyes could see her features, neither pretty nor homely. Her large clear eyes stared into the photographer’s flash without guile. She wore a simple dress with a plain cloth collar, an ordinary woman who needed a husband enough to marry a stranger twenty years her senior.

He had sent her no photograph in return, nor had she asked for one. He had sent instead a ticket, sent it to the Christian boarding-house in which she stayed in filthy, howling Chicago, and now he stood, a rich man in a tiny town in a cold climate, at the start of a Wisconsin winter in the year 1907. Ralph Truitt waited for the train that would bring Catherine Land to him




observations: Reading this book was part of a project to clear a TBR pile, and that worked out well because  I bought it a while ago, and remembered nothing about it except what you would know from the excerpt above: that a man living in a remote mid-Western town in 1907 advertises for a wife, and she arrives by train. So something like Patricia MacLachlan’s YA classic Sarah, Plain and Tall? No, as it turns out, not one little bit.

I knew it had been described as a gothic creepy tale, but still every surprise and twist came to me fresh, and I enjoyed that – I am a good guesser, and there are only so many ways this plot could go, but still I could lose myself in the overblown prose, even if there were rather too many descriptions of sex.

There was one point where I found the plot unconvincing, but as it turns out, Robert Goolrick had thought of that too, right at the end, so that was satisfying. (I felt the whole business with the original photograph wasn’t really explained, either.)

We find out about Ralph Truitt’s past, and what he wants from the future: we find out some of Catherine Land’s past. He says to her ‘I know. I know what you are doing.’ But does he?

Some of the very lush prose became repetitive, and the endless misery got a bit much, with the sad stories of the people of the town, and the tagline ‘it was just a story about despair.’ But I found it involving, and a little bit unexpected, and I really did want to know what was going to happen to the people.

In Sunday’s entry on John Dickson Carr, another book set in 1907, I featured a picture of a young woman in a bathing-suit. It was captioned in a museum archive as 1907, although it did look much more recent than that, and one valued reader, Daniel Milford-Cottam, helpfully came into the comments to explain why he thought it had been wrongly dated. He was very convincing…. But whatever the truth, the world of bathing suits and exposed legs is very far from the 1907 portrayed in this book.

This photograph here is of Harriet E Giles, a pioneer and advocate of women’s education in the early years of the 20th century, and one of the founders of Spelman College.


14 comments:

  1. Am now contemplating Sarah, Plain & Tall gone Bad...

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    1. Oh YES. There's a whole train-load of jokes there...

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  2. Moira - The whole concept of the 'mail order bride' is interesting, just because of the disparate people it brings together. And I can easily see how that could become Gothic and creepy. I'm not much of a one for overblown prose, but this sounds absorbing.

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    1. It's such a great setup for a book isn't it Margot? Both sides wondering what they're getting into, and contemplating what they might not have revealed yet. I actually wish this author had been a bi less consciously literary, and a bit more an honest crime writer... I think it would have improved the book.

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  3. Moira, I can lose myself in "overblown" or "lush" prose so long as it keeps me hooked all the way through. In such case it doesn't matter if the story does not match up. This book sounds really good.

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    1. Yes exactly, I agree with you. this one does have a strong plot and a strong sense of place and atmosphere - I think you might like it.

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  4. Some awful tales - true and fictional, have been told about mail-order brides. Lots of domestic abuse over here with contemporary situations where men pick women from various websites, and they come here. Not so good.

    However, I must look up Harriet E. Giles, someone I've never come across.

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    1. Yes, it's a serious issue in real life here too I'd say. This one is definitely fictional, and you might put your money on the bride...
      I had not come across Giles, or the college, but strangely Spelman College came up in my reading again this week.

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  5. Well, apparently Harriet E. Giles and Sophia Packman, life companions, set up a Baptist School for African-American young women in Atlanta, Ga.. It became the historical, famous Spelman College, a fantastic school.

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    1. Yes I hadn't heard of her before finding this photo, but what admirable women they were.

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  6. Very interesting book. Don't know if I would like it, but still interesting.

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    1. It was. And it's not one I'm strongly recommending, but I did enjoy it.

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  7. The photo threw me because I think your subtitle says it's set in 2007? I can safely pass on this one regardless

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    1. Full marks for close observation: that was a mistake on my part, it absolutely should have said *1907* not 2007. I have now changed it, having completely failed to notice it, along with anyone else reading it. Thank you!

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