Some readers aren’t going to like Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife. I will warn now that there is a lot more telling than showing in this book; there is no subtext because every thought and feeling is laid out for you in the narration. This bothered me at the beginning. Once I got carried away by the story and characters, I didn’t mind so much.
A Reliable Wife opens with Ralph Truitt waiting, impatiently and uncomfortably, at the station for a late train. On the train, is the woman who answered his advertisement for a woman willing to travel to Wisconsin’s Great North Woods to become his wife. Truitt has been alone for twenty years after he discovered his Italian wife having an affair with the piano teacher. Though Truitt is a passionate (read: lustful) man, he’s been living a monkish life ever since. He decided to advertise for a wife because he couldn’t bear the loneliness anymore. The woman who declared to a “simple, honest woman” in her letters to Truitt is anything but. Catherine Land answered his ad, she admits to herself to become more than a kept woman and prostitute. She wants love and money. She plans to get the money from Truitt. Before long, you’ll learn about Catherine’s secret, more sinister goal.
Catherine acts like the missionary’s daughter she claims to be. Truitt tries to keep a lid on his desire, though he tells her about his past debaucheries to get the revelations out of the way. After they marry, Truitt sends Catherine to St. Louis to ask his illegitimate son to return to the family home. It’s the one thing he asks of her, and Catherine can’t think of a convincing way to put him off.
Antonio turns out to be as much of a wastrel as the private detectives Truitt hired to track him down say. I had a brief thought that Antonio might be the lover Catherine hinted at during her first chapter, but I dismissed it, thinking it would be too much of a coincidence. After a disastrous first meeting, Catherine returns to Antonio’s rooms alone and it turned out that I was right. Goolrick also reveals just how long the plot against Truitt has gone on. The problem now is that Catherine has grown to care for Truitt in a way and doesn’t want to poison him anymore. After Catherine tracks down her missing, dying sister, she really doesn’t want to harm him. Antonio blackmails her to return and kill Triutt.
The stage is set for an inevitable tragedy. I don’t say inevitable in a bad way. Though you know that nothing good will come of the triangle between Catherine and Truitt and Antonio, there’s a little glimmer of hope that the characters might reconcile and that the three might find some kind of redemption. A Reliable Wife begins as a kind of dark romance before turning into a revenge tale, but the last third is about atonement–at least, as much atonement as is possible for such damaged people.