In 1907, rural businessman Ralph Truitt places the following advert in the newspaper; "Country businessman seeks reliable wife. Compelled by practical reasons. Reply by letter." He is answered by Catherine, who claims to be a 'simple, honest woman', the daughter of missionaries. She arrives by train in the middle of winter, but isn't who she claims to be. Catherine thinks she is leading Ralph through her own devious scheme, but little does she know that he also has plans and secrets of his own.
I really wanted to like A Reliable Wife, which I read with Elena from Books and Reviews. I love gothic fiction, so the setting and plot of this book appealed. Unfortunately, I disliked the book almost from the first chapter and although it improved towards the middle, it never became a good read. The plot itself was fine; it required a little stretching of the imagination in terms of how the main characters all ended up linked, but I could have done that. Instead, the main issues were with the writing and the characterisation.
Taking the writing first, it just felt so amateurish. Goolrick tried to make every sentence into a heartfelt statement, with the effect that some of the chapters ended up feeing a bit silly and over the top. He was a fan of long, overly descriptive sentences followed by very short ones, which again I suppose was for effect, but it didn't really work. Even worse than this, Goolrick couldn't keep the perspectives straight in the different chapters. Each chapter was from the point of view of one of three characters, but every now and again someone else's thoughts would find their way in, which was jarring. For example, when Catherine is returning to Ralph after some time away, we get a lot of description of how she is feeling and then a random sentence about how Ralph 'was struck by her calm'. How would Catherine know this? It's a bit of a pet peeve when writers do this, write from one perspective but then can't stick to it. It ruins the flow of the reading experience.
The other issue I had was the characterisation. Goolrick's characters simply don't act how people would act in the real world. Catherine was the most fully formed, she had motivations for her behaviour and seemed to act in a realistic way. But Ralph and his son simply didn't feel like real people. Ralph especially, no one would be that calm and forgiving throughout the novel, given the situations Goolrick put him in. It's almost as though Goolrick wanted the plot to go a certain way, so he invented characters to fit with that, not stopping to consider whether they were realistic.
So on the whole, I wasn't a fan of A Reliable Wife! As I said, the middle section was better than the beginning and the end and the plot had potential. It was just a shame about the writing.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2009
My Edition: Abacus, 2010
Score: 2 out of 5