This is a great time of year to read Robert Goolrick's book, A Reliable Wife, because in the book, it always seems to be winter, always cold and bleak. It is a story that is very much of its place and landscape and experiencing cold helps one to feel that story.
Goolrick has an almost poetic way with the language and builds suspense beautifully in this, his first, novel. It is a very gothic tale. As I was reading it, for some reason I kept thinking of Edgar Allan Poe, and the poem of his that came to mind was Annabel Lee. Not that the stories that the poem and this novel tell are particularly related, but the cadence of the language and the use of repetition struck me as being similar. The book also reminded me of younger (much younger) days when I used to devour the novels of Daphne du Maurier and the Bronte' sisters. This book would be right at home on a shelf with those ladies' works.
The story begins in 1907 in Wisconsin during a viciously cold winter. Indeed, the action of the novel which runs through 1908 seems to always be in winter. The cold and miserable landscape seems to be a reflection of the characters' personalities.
Ralph Truitt is a rich country businessman in Wisconsin. He has been a widower for 20 years. His life has been filled with family tragedy. For 20 years he has not felt the touch of a woman, and for 20 years, he has burned for such a touch. This book, you see, is not just a gothic novel, it is a thorough-going bodice-ripper! We are privy to all of Ralph's fevered memories of his sexual history and his ongoing fantasies which burn with such smoldering desire that one almost expects the book to burst into flames!
At long last, Ralph decides to take steps to end his loneliness. He advertises in several newspapers for a mail order bride. His ad requests "a reliable wife. Compelled by practical not romantic reasons." But Ralph obviously is not just what his staid and discreetly worded ad implies.
He receives several responses and from them chooses Catherine Land from St. Louis. He sends his private railroad car to bring her to him. In the dead of winter.
Ah, but Catherine also is not exactly the person that she seems at first. Our two main characters are both playing roles, and one of those roles may lead to murder. I won't say more than that for you may wish to read this book and I don't want to spoil it for you. If you are up for a psychological thriller/bodice-ripper/tale of possible redemption, this might just be the book for you.
It really is a beautifully written novel that maintains the tension throughout. It's also deliciously wicked. Much of its appeal, I think, comes from its strong sense of place - a Wisconsin where winter never seems to end and where those endless winters can drive people mad with loneliness, melancholia, and desire.
Such things happen.