Nothing is what it seems in the pages of A Reliable Wife, the debut novel by adman and memoirist Robert Goolrick. What starts as a brooding tale of trickery and betrayal is, in fact, a meditation on loneliness. It has roots that reach far beyond the frigid Wisconsin landscape where the tale is set, and which suck their sustenance from the personal torment of Goolrick’s own southern-gothic past.
It’s a frigid mid-October night in 1907 and Ralph Truitt, a wealthy industrialist living near the Canadian border, is meeting the train. It carries Catherine Land, his mail-order bride, who answered his newspaper ad for a “reliable wife.” As happens in all small towns, Truitt’s private business has become public. Waiting on the railroad platform, he’s surrounded by curious neighbors, most of whom his mills or mines employ.
Standing in the center of the crowd, his solitude was enormous. He felt that in all the vast and frozen space in which he lived his life — every hand needy, every heart wanting something from him — everybody had a reason to be and a place to land. Everybody but him. For him there was nothing. In all the cold and bitter world, there was not a single place for him to sit down.
When the train finally arrives, the exotic beauty who exits the private railroad car Truitt sent to fetch her is clearly not the same woman whose photo he holds in his hand. But with so many curious eyes upon them, Truitt hustles her off to avoid a scene, yet delivers a warning: “This begins in a lie. I want you to know I know that.”
We know it, too. Unlike Truitt, we’ve spent a few days with Catherine on her ride across the prairie, pondering her past and plotting her future. We’re privy to enough of her history to know she’s hiding lies far more grave than that switched photo. But we share her disadvantage, too. Who is Ralph Truitt? What does a man of such wealth want with an outsider? Sure, Catherine’s an amoral schemer, but we have to wonder — could this stranger she plans to marry already be one step ahead of her?
And so it is, with just a few tantalizing words, that Goolrick, like any copywriter worth his Madison Avenue letterhead, sets the hook and reels us in. We find ourselves in a winter-bound world, the mysteries unfolding as the story veers back and forth in time. Truitt, scarred early on by the religious extremism of his mother, is tormented by a 20-year-old tragedy. Catherine, meanwhile, a courtesan playing the part of a daughter of missionaries, has deadly plans.
If it all sounds like the stuff of melodrama, you’re right. But Goolrick’s spare and elegant prose keeps the swirling secrets and repressed emotions of A Reliable Wife from turning into a pulpy, weepy mess. As the author proved in his well-received memoir, The End of the World as We Know It, he’s not one to flinch from upsetting or unsavory details.
The first and final thirds of the novel, almost purely plot-driven, race by against a backdrop of stunning visual detail. The vast, white landscape, the relentless cold, the isolation, all offer a delicious mood of foreboding. You half expect Mrs. Danvers to pop out of a cupboard somewhere, hissing that Rebecca still rules this roost. But in the middle section, things go slack. The story turns inward and quickly bogs down. Catherine’s sordid past is laid out and Truitt’s anguish is explored. As we learn what drives these greedy, grasping and ultimately damaged characters, we’re treated to some extended navel-gazing.
Truitt, it turns out, is a sensualist. But at the hands of his nut case of a mother, highlighted by a brief and vivid scene of torture, he has been taught to abhor his own appetites. As a result, there’s a fixated, almost fetishistic quality to the language in the love scenes. Goolrick turns paragraphs into incantations. Here’s Truitt, longing for Catherine:
He wanted to touch her. He wanted to see the exhaustion of sex in every gesture. He wanted to unpin her hair in a warm room, and lift a pristine nightdress over her head. He wanted to feel the first touch of his hand on her smooth, dry skin.
And a page later:
He wanted to hear the sounds that came from her throat when she had no breath left, when she was breathless with desire.
There’s more, lots more. Truitt states and restates his hunger, repeats words, circles back, repeats again, returns obsessively to the same thought until the even simplest wish for the most mundane contact takes on the taint of sin. It’s hard not to think, then, about Goolrick’s memoir, which lays out, quite matter-of-factly, a horrific scene of sexual abuse.
But this is a novel, after all, and Goolrick has more up his sleeve. The various mysteries unravel, to good and quite surprising effect. Truitt’s past meets up with Catherine’s present. Both find themselves tested. Goolrick himself lays out the basis for his tale:
It was just a story of how the bitter cold gets into your bones and never leaves you, of how the memories get into your heart and never leave you alone, of the pain and the bitterness of what happens to you when you’re small and have no defenses but still know evil when it happens, of secrets about evil you have no one to tell, of the life you live in secret, knowing your own pain and the pain of others but helpless to do anything other than the things you do, and the end it all comes to.
Sounds mighty bleak, but there’s one more twist in store. The true surprise in this dark and richly textured novel isn’t in the labyrinth of secrets, or even in their revelations. It’s in the ending, an unexpected moment of hope which gives the characters, and one imagines, Goolrick himself, a final — or is it first? — chance for love.