Review of A Reliable Wife

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If you had picked up this book and admired the cover, relishing the promise of a devious noir tale set in the snowy bleakness of small town Wisconsin in 1907, you would have perhaps decided to purchase the book, carrying to the front counter of the book store a thick paper bundle made slightly for substantial in your hand by the weight of your expectations. You would have remembered so many other books you had purchased in this way, taking them home and cozying up on the couch with a cup of hot English tea, mixed with a little milk poured from a grocery store carton and honey harvested from local hives. As you stood there, stirring your tea together with the milk and honey, you would have felt the poignancy of rising anticipation building in your breast as you thought of that book sitting in the other room on a little mahogany table beside the end of the couch, just under the curved swoop of your favorite reading lamp.

Perhaps you would have been struck by the anachronistic use of second person to set the scene, but perhaps too you would have been dazed by the lush prose and the languid sentences. Perhaps you would have shrugged off the long tedious exposition as a delightfully droll devise for providing background information about the story that you believed to be on the verge of beginning any page now. After all, you were learning about the characters. You knew now how Ralph Truitt was so rich that he bought and sold the two thousand other people who lived in his town but how he secretly worried very much about how these people regarded him. You knew too how Ralph was a lonely widower and how during long cold nights especially he was above all extremely sexually frustrated and jealous of all the other townsfolk who he imagined were having frequent and satisfying intimate relations with each other. You knew now how Catherine Land was not what she seemed but more of a schemer, a woman of considerable if fading beauty who had finally determined that she would not reach the end of her life without having attained for herself either a great love or an enormous amount of money. And yet, for all your reading of the two lengthy chapters of the novel, this was the sum of your knowledge. The first chapter described him waiting on the train platform with all these internal thoughts and background stories; the second chapter provided the same exhaustive character sketch for her.

Perhaps you would have taken a deep breath then to shake off your frustration with such an obviously capable writer choosing to tell you all these things about the characters rather than showing you things about the characters and allowing you to draw your own conclusions about their personalities and motivations by experiencing them actually doing things. But, forgiving soul that you are, you would have gone quietly to the kitchen to refill your tea cup, remixing the perfect blend of milk and honey, and pausing there as you set down the spoon to refill your patience.

Back on the sofa, you would have felt pleasure upon reading the first line of the third chapter for it seemed at last that here was action: “She stepped into snow.” Reading on, you find that the prose still has the over-rich, languid quality of the first two chapters, but now at last things were happening. Slowly, yes, but they were happening. Ralph and Catherine were meeting on the train platform. Her clothes were too cheap and thin for the Wisconsin blizzard. Ralph’s words nearly betrayed his preoccupation with avoiding the searching eyes of the townsfolk. And most tellingly for the story to come, Catherine had deceived Ralph in her letter, sending him a photograph not of herself but of another woman she now claimed was her cousin. This deception irritates Ralph and he tells her that whoever she is she should know that their relationship begins with a lie. Then they take his carriage from the station to his house, and barely speaking, they revert to their interior thoughts where you are again made privy to all their fears and hopes, their frustrations and worries. As you’re reading this third chapter, you are now convinced this one should have started the novel instead when the editor excised the first two like a dental surgeon removing wisdom teeth that are not only unneeded but also tend to crowd their more useful fellows. You might even notice as you’re reading that full sentences of exposition from the first two chapters find themselves repeated and reiterated here, and at the end of this third chapter, though it’s started to give you hints of the story, you decide to lay the book aside.

Lovely prose does not a compelling novel make. Perhaps you will decide to re-read Louisa May Alcott’s novella “Behind a Mask” instead. It’s a similar tale in some ways but much more deftly told.

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