From Publishers Weekly
Set in 1907 Wisconsin, Goolrick's fiction debut (after a memoir, The End of the World as We Know It
) gets off to a slow, stylized start, but eventually generates some real suspense. When Catherine Land, who's survived a traumatic early life by using her wits and sexuality as weapons, happens on a newspaper ad from a well-to-do businessman in need of a "reliable wife," she invents a plan to benefit from his riches and his need. Her new husband, Ralph Truitt, discovers she's deceived him the moment she arrives in his remote hometown. Driven by a complex mix of emotions and simple animal attraction, he marries her anyway. After the wedding, Catherine helps Ralph search for his estranged son and, despite growing misgivings, begins to poison him with small doses of arsenic. Ralph sickens but doesn't die, and their story unfolds in ways neither they nor the reader expect. This darkly nuanced psychological tale builds to a strong and satisfying close. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From The Washington Post
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Ron Charles Don't be fooled by the prissy cover or that ironic title. Robert Goolrick's first novel, "A Reliable Wife," isn't just hot, it's in heat: a gothic tale of such smoldering desire it should be read in a cold shower. This is a bodice ripper of a hundred thousand pearly buttons, ripped off one at a time with agonizing restraint. It works only because Goolrick never cracks a smile, never lets on that he thinks all this overwrought sexual frustration is anything but the most serious incantation of longing and despair ever uttered in the dead of night. The curtain rises in 1907 during a Wisconsin winter "cold enough to sear the skin from your bones." Ralph Truitt, the wealthiest man in town, stands frozen in place on a train platform, but inside he's burning with the unsated desire of 20 solitary years. Ralph is waiting for his mail-order bride, a woman he requisitioned through a classified ad: "Country businessman seeks reliable wife. Compelled by practical not romantic reasons. . . . Discreet." That may sound as horny as Sunday school, but Ralph isn't entirely what he seems, standing there on the platform with "his eyes turned downward, engraved with a permanent air of condescension and grief." Inside, the 58-year-old widower is startled by the intensity of his desires, consumed with thoughts of sex and murder and madness in homes all around town. "Sometimes his loneliness was like a fire beneath his skin," Goolrick writes. "He had thought of taking his razor and slicing his own flesh, peeling back the skin that would not stop burning." This first chapter, in which everything appears stock still, is told in a husky whisper of something lurid and painful, "the terrible whip of tragedy." Again and again, we hear this refrain, like a judgment and a curse: "These things happened." Keep this in mind as you're scanning the personal ads in the City Paper. When Catherine Land finally arrives, looking prim and dour, she isn't what she appears to be, either. She threw her extravagant party dresses out the train window a few miles from town, and she has hidden jewels in the hem of her black wool dress. She's not even the woman in the photo she sent Ralph during their summer of tentative correspondence. And she's carrying a bottle of arsenic and "a long and complicated scheme." Poor Ralph has some awfully bad luck with women: the matrimonial equivalent of sailing to Europe on the Titanic and flying home on the Hindenburg. "This begins in a lie," he tells Catherine sternly as he picks up her bags. "I want you to know that I know that. . . . Whatever else, you're a liar." All Ralph wants -- or pretends he wants -- is "a simple, honest woman. A quiet life. A life in which everything could be saved and nobody went insane." That's so hard to attain when your new bride hopes to poison you straightaway. But damned if he doesn't almost die in a spectacular riding accident while bringing her home from the station. Poor Catherine finds she's got to nurse Ralph back to health before she can start killing him. Don't worry: I'm not giving anything away. Neither of these two steely people is playing straight with the other, and Goolrick isn't playing straight with us, either. The floor collapses in almost every chapter, and we suddenly crash through assumptions we'd thought were solid. Goolrick keeps probing at the way people force themselves not to know something -- not to believe the truth -- in order to fulfill their deepest longings. The novel is deliciously wicked and tense, presented as a series of sepia tableaux, interrupted by flashes of bright red violence. The whole thing takes place in a fever pitch of exquisite sensations and boundless grief in a place where "the winters were long, and tragedy and madness rose in the pristine air." The word "alone" spreads through these pages like mold in the cellar, until it's everywhere. The stillness and whiteness of the Wisconsin setting eventually give way to the lush depravity of St. Louis, lined with music halls and opium dens. Much of this section takes place in "a tented, brocaded bedroom, like a palace abandoned before a revolution." I'm reluctant to quote much more for fear of making the book sound silly -- "Love that lived beyond passion was ephemeral. It was the gauze bandage that wrapped the wounds of your heart" -- but once you've fallen into the miasma of "A Reliable Wife," it's intoxicating. (Columbia Pictures has already grabbed the rights for what could be an inflammable movie.) I'm reminded of Edgar Allan Poe's stories with their claustrophobic atmosphere, hyper-maudlin tone and the extravagant suffering that borders on garishness. (Yes, Goolrick includes a forlorn castle, too.) These are all qualities the author displayed in his equally gothic memoir, "The End of the World as We Know It" (2007). But his inspiration for "A Reliable Wife" reportedly came from "Wisconsin Death Trip," a grim collection of antique photographs published in 1973. The editor of that book, Michael Lesy, reproduced pictures of children laid to rest and parents in shock, along with newspaper anecdotes about murder, illness, assault and insanity -- the same kinds of ghastly tales that obsess Goolrick's overheating characters. Ultimately, this bizarre story is one of forgiveness. But the path to that salutary conclusion lies through a spectacularly orchestrated crescendo of violation and violence, a chapter you finish feeling surprised that everyone around you hasn't heard the screams, too.
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Bookmarks Magazine
The Boston Globe described A Reliable Wife as “a historical potboiler, an organic mystery rooted in the real social ills of turn-of-the-century America.” Certainly, the novel’s characters have their share of secrets and motives while illuminating the social milieu of early 20th-century rural Wisconsin and Gilded Age St. Louis. Psychologically driven, the novel boasts an unusual depth of characters and hypnotic, if at times overly sensuous, prose. Indeed, noted the Washington Post, it is “a gothic tale of such smoldering desire it should be read in a cold shower.” A few critics predicted the final twist, but that did not detract from their praise for this riveting novel of love, loss, forgiveness—and human connection.
Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Goolrick twists a familiar story, refashioning it into something completely original. Many authors have employed the timeworn rural-man-advertises-for-mail-order-bride plot device, but few have permeated their narratives with gothic elements and suspense to such great effect. All is not as straightforward as it seems when Catherine Land steps off the train in rural Wisconsin in 1907. Who is Catherine, and what is her true intent? What shadowy secrets could middle-aged Ralph Truitt be hiding? Both these complex characters have plenty of traumatic baggage that is peeled away layer by layer as the two engage in a darkly dangerous game of check and checkmate. The unforeseen conclusion provides a big payoff for readers of this tension-laden debut from a promising new talent. --Margaret Flanagan --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"A killer debut novel . . . Suspenseful and erotic . . . [A] chillingly engrossing plot . . . Good to the riveting end." —USA Today
"A gothic tale of . . . smoldering desire . . . The novel is deliciously wicked and tense, presented as a series of sepia tableaux, interrupted by flashes of bright red violence . . . Once you’ve fallen into the miasma of A Reliable Wife
, it’s intoxicating." —The Washington Post
(The Washington Post
"Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife
is my must-read recommendation . . . This engrossing and addictive novel will leave you both chilled and satisfied." —Chris Livingston, Summer's Best reads on NPR’s Morning Edition
(NPR's Morning Edition
"A thrilling, juicy read . . . The writing is beautiful and the story is captivating. It’s a real page-turner." —Today
"A tantalizing pace that will have you flipping faster and faster through the pages . . . A beautiful and haunting read, a story about all the different manifestations of love—a story that will stay with you." —Minneapolis Star Tribune
(Minneapolis Star Tribune
“After breaking through with a disquieting memoir . . . Goolrick applies his storytelling talents to a debut novel, set in 1907, about icy duplicity and heated vengeance. . . . A sublime murder ballad that doesn’t turn out at all the way one might expect.” —Kirkus, starred review
A Reliable Wife “generates some real suspense . . .This darkly nuanced psychological tale builds to a strong and satisfying close.” –Publishers Weekly
“Goolrick twists a familiar story, refashioning it into something completely original. . . . Few have permeated their narratives with gothic elements and suspense to such great effect. . . . The unforeseen conclusion provides a big payoff for readers of this tension-laden debut from a promising new talent.”—Booklist
“Debut novelist Robert Goolrick has managed a minor miracle. In the kind of precise, literary prose that breathes life into his complicated characters, Goolrick, author of an acclaimed memoir, has also managed a rousing historical potboiler, an organic mystery rooted in the real social ills of turn-of-the-century America. Whether writing about the farms of Wisconsin or the fleshpots of St. Louis, he re-creates a full-bodied, believable environment, and he peoples these worlds with characters as sensitive, as tortured as any contemporary souls. The result is a detailed exploration of love, despair, and the distance people can travel to reach each other that is as surprising, and as suspenseful, as any beach read.” -- Boston Globe
A “glittering, poisoned ice cube of a tale . . . Has a little of the Gothic feel of Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca--complete with a dead first wife, suspicious housekeeper, and gorgeous mansion . . . A Reliable Wife is eminently readable and should delight fans of old-fashioned Gothic romances . . . Goolrick is a solid wordsmith, and he handily manages the impressive task of making readers care about a woman bent on cold-blooded murder. And generating the proper Gothic ambience in Wisconsin is no mean feat.” -- Christian Science Monitor
(Christian Science Monitor
A "fierce and sophisticated debut novel . . . In its best moments, A Reliable Wife calls to mind the chilling tales of Poe and Stephen King, and at its core this is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. It melds a plot drenched in suspense with expertly realized characters and psychological realism. The fate of those characters is in doubt right up to this relentless story’s intense final pages, and Goolrick’s ability to sustain that tension is a tribute to his craftsmanship and one of the true pleasures of a fine first novel." -- Bookpage
“A weighty psychodrama laced with Hitchcockian suspense.”-- Time Out New York
(Time Out New York
"A gothic tale of . . . smoldering desire. . . . The novel is deliciously wicked and tense, presented as a series of sepia tableaux, interrupted by flashes of bright red violence. . . . Once you've fallen into the miasma of A Reliable Wife, it's intoxicating." –Washington Post
"[A] beautifully written, beautifully dark book. Goolrick is a superb writer."—Chicago Sun-Times
“A killer debut novel . . . suspenseful and erotic . . . [A] chillingly engrossing plot . . . good to the riveting end.” –USA Today
) --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“I was totally captivated by A Reliable Wife
. Raw and lyrical at the same time, Robert Goolrick’s wonderful novel grips the reader with its complex and beautiful story.”—Sandra Brown --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.