A Reliable Wife
by Robert Goolrick
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Rural Wisconsin, 1909. In the bitter cold, Ralph Truitt, a successful businessman, stands alone on a train platform waiting for the woman who answered his newspaper advertisement for "a reliable wife." But when Catherine Land steps off the train from Chicago, she's not the "simple, honest woman" that Ralph is expecting. She is both complex and devious, haunted by a terrible past and motivated by greed. Her plan is simple: she will win this man's devotion, and then, ever so slowly, she will poison him and leave Wisconsin a wealthy widow. What she has not counted on, though, is that Truitt --- a passionate man with his own dark secrets --- has plans of his own for his new wife. Isolated on a remote estate and imprisoned by relentless snow, the story of Ralph and Catherine unfolds in unimaginable ways.
With echoes of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, Robert Goolrick's intoxicating debut novel delivers a classic tale of suspenseful seduction, set in a world that seems to have gone temporarily off its axis.
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1. The novel’s setting and strong sense of place seem to echo its mood and themes. What role does the wintry Wisconsin landscape play? And the very different, opulent setting of St. Louis?
2. Ralph’s and Catherine’s story frequently pauses to give brief, frequently horrific glimpses into the lives of others. Ralph remarks on the violence that surrounds them in Wisconsin, saying, “They hate their lives. They start to hate each other. They lose their minds, wanting things they can’t have.” How do these vignettes of madness and violence contribute to the novel’s themes?
3. Catherine imagines herself as an actress playing a series of roles, the one of Ralph’s wife being the starring role of a lifetime. Where in the novel might you see a glimpse of the real Catherine Land? Do you feel like you ever get to know this woman, or is she always hidden behind a façade?
4. The encounter between Catherine and her sister Alice is one of the pivotal moments of the novel. How do you view these two women after reading the story of their origins? Why do the two sisters wind up on such different paths? Why does Catherine ultimately lose hope in Alice’s redemption?
5. The idea of escape runs throughout the novel. Ralph thinks, “Some things you escape... You don’t escape the things, mostly bad, that just happen to you.” What circumstances trap characters permanently? How do characters attempt to escape their circumstances? When, if ever, do they succeed? How does the bird imagery that runs through the book relate to the idea of imprisonment and escape?
6. “You can live with hopelessness for only so long before you are, in fact, hopeless,” reflects Ralph. Which characters here are truly hopeless. Alice? Antonio? Ralph himself? Do you see any glimmers of hope in the story?
7. Why, in your opinion, does Ralph allow himself to be gradually poisoned, even after he’s aware of what’s happening to him? What does this decision say about his character?
8. Why does Catherine become obsessed with nurturing and reviving the “secret garden” of Ralph’s mansion? What insights does this preoccupation reveal about Catherine’s character?
9. Does Catherine live up in any way to the advertisement Ralph places in the newspaper (p. 20)? Why or why not?
10. Did you have sympathy for any of the characters? Did this change as time went on?
11. At the onset of A Reliable Wife the charactersare not good people. They have done bad things and have lived thoughtlessly. In the end how do they find hope?
12. The author directly or indirectly references several classic novels --- by the Brontë sisters, Daphne DuMaurier and Frances Hodgson Burnett, among others. How does A Reliable Wife play with the conventions of these classic Gothic novels? Does the book seem more shocking or provocative as a result?
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"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 Review, Starred Review
"[A Reliable Wife] generates some real suspense... This darkly nuanced psychological tale builds to a strong and satisfying close"
"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."
"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."
"A thrilling, juicy read… The writing is beautiful and the story is captivating. It's a real page-turner."
"A killer debut novel… Suspenseful and erotic… [A] chillingly engrossing plot… Good to the riveting end."
"A buzz-worthy debut novel."
Wall Street Journal
"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."
"Suspenseful… jam-packed with delicious twists, turns and surprises from beginning to end… Not only a fabulous up-to-the last-minute page-turner about love, lust, lies, deception, heartbreak and resiliency but also a nicely written and elegantly descriptive story… Each character's story is captivating and surprising. You won't put this book down. It's that delicious, up until the last page."
"[A] beautifully written, beautifully dark book. Goolrick is a superb writer who uses repetition to great effect… [The plot’s] twists and turns are a pleasure to navigate, the writing so mesmerizing it makes one wonder whether Goolrick practices; anyone who can turn a sentence fragment into poetry so well has to work at it…. Goolrick's unique tonality and his ability to convey complex emotions in elegant, spare language embed A Reliable Wife in your head."
"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
"A dark, shimmering, opalescent novel… a book to live in, a book that would have made a great movie for Bette Davis and Claude Rains. A Reliable Wife promises much, and it delivers because it confronts its own ripeness, then grabs it and sprints… It's a strange, shimmering novel, a fever-dream of betrayal and eroticism whose impact remains after the fever has passed."
Palm Beach Post
"This book goes far above and significantly deeper than any simple romance…or many psychological thrillers… Goolrick does not just give glimpses into the thoughts and yearnings of these two people, but rather he entangles himself in their psyches, often lingering longer than is comfortable, until it is clear how difficult it must be to live inside their skins… Readers will…be compelled to discover each detail, to keep turning the pages as Goolrick draws a picture of each character's intentions and the possible, terrible outcomes."
St. Louis Post Dispatch
"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
"With his Northern gothic novel A Reliable Wife, acclaimed memoirist Robert Goolrick creates an unforgettable heroine --- a mail-order black widow."
The Daily Beast
"A gothic tale that's as much psychological as it is plot driven… satisfying and surprising."
"A weighty psychodrama laced with Hitchcockian suspense."
Time Out New York
"The past few weeks when booksellers, reviewers and librarians were talking about books they loved, very often we all were talking about A Reliable Wife… [The] story takes you on one very wild ride."
"A Reliable Wife is most definitely a bodice-ripper disguised as literary fiction… First-time novelist Goolrick is a fine, masterful writer."
Metro New York
"[A] brilliant book… By turns tantalizing, surprising and shocking, A Reliable Wife shows us how the past and its echoes can change one’s life as easily as a new realization can change one’s mind."
"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."
"Its prose unspools like a fever dream that is at once lushly detailed, hugely complicated, yet completely logical… Goolrick's writing style is at once hypnotic and understated. Each word has its place, yet the words follow each other so surely and without the reader pausing to breathe, let alone look up, that the novel creates its own kind of ‘snow blindness’… [A] remarkable novel… Once you start reading, you'll be hooked."
The Book Studio
"Astonishing, complex, beautifully written, and brilliant, A Reliable Wife is a nearly-forensic look at love in all its incarnations, with all its damages, deceptions, and obsessions, run through with points of light and pinned with ruinous truths."
Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants
"A Reliable Wife burrows its way deep under the reader's skin. It moves along like a tale foretold, with an energy that is impossible to resist and an almost mythic resonance. You begin reading this novel at your peril for it will keep you straining to know what happens next until you come to the last, redemptive sentence."
Daphne Merkin, author of Dreaming of Hitler
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