David Ebershoff teaches writing at Columbia University and also works in publishing. He is the author of two previous novels and a collection of short stories; here, he combines historical fiction with a murder mystery.
The Story: Jordan Scott, a young gay man living in California, is called back to Utah when his mother is accused of having killed his father. There, he must once again deal with the members of a polygamous group that broke away from the Mormons, people who literally threw him out of his home at age fourteen. Jordan quickly starts to investigate what really happened. Interspersed with this modern-day mystery is the story of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s notorious 19th wife, who many believe was influential in the outlawing of polygamy by Congress. Ebershoff mixes a traditional narrative with real and imagined biographies, letters, a master’s thesis—and even a Wikipedia entry—to explore love, faith, and belief of all kinds.
Random House. 528 pages. $26. ISBN: 978140006397
NY Times Book Review
"In a less talented writer’s hands, The 19th Wife could have turned into a Rube Goldberg contraption. But in the end the multiplicity of perspectives serves to broaden Ebershoff’s depiction not only of polygamy, but also of the people whose lives it informs. And this gives his novel a rare sense of moral urgency." Louisa Thomas
"[Ebershoff has] produced a novel that poses engaging challenges for the faithful in any denomination without discounting the essential value of faith. The result is a book packed with historical illumination, unforgettable characters and the deepest questions about the tenacity of belief." Ron Charles
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Ebershoff, however, cleaves so close to his historical sources that one wonders why he did not just the lift the originals. … The 19th Wife may be a bit muddled, but, like most of its characters, its heart is in the right place." Anne Trubek
"We can assume, from the uncanny way that Ebershoff’s present-day story line echoes themes raised by his version of Ann Eliza Young, that the two principal narratives are meant to reinforce each other, across time and circumstance. And if one refracted the other significantly, rather than simply mirroring its counterpart, that might have been the case. Unfortunately, it is not." Art Winslow
"I closed the book still confused by the fictionalization, by the weak solving of the murder, and pretty certain I don’t want to know any more about this subject, however well written." Diane Hartman
"Regrettably, Jordan’s contemporary story offers little of the spiritual complexity of Ann Eliza’s saga. As a mystery it is totally without suspense, and the characters, other than Jordan (who has a healthy sense of the absurd), are not well-developed or compelling. Sometimes, one good story is all you need." Richard Wallace
Reviewers had very different reactions to the contemporary and historical narratives; many preferred Ann Eliza to Jordan as a protagonist and cited her story as more compelling than the murder mystery. The lack of a direct connection between the two stories bothered some reviewers, who had hoped for a dramatic revelation about a relationship between the two protagonists. Some felt that too many stories were being told in one novel, while others objected to the variety of "sources" used in the historical portion. Despite such complaints, many reviewers found great relevance in Ebershoff’s book because of the recent raid on the Texas LDS ranch, as well as a number of recent nonfiction books on polygamy. For those interested in the topic, The 19th Wife is a timely addition.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.
1. The first part of the novel, “Two Wives,” contains prefaces to two very different books. What did you think when you started reading The 19th Wife? Which story interested you the most?
2. Ann Eliza Young says, “Faith is a mystery.” How does Ebershoff play with this metaphor? What are the mysteries in The 19th Wife? What does the novel say about faith?
3. What are your impressions of Ann Eliza Young, and how do those impressions change over the course of the novel? Do you trust her as a narrator?
4. Brigham Young was one of the most dynamic and complex figures in nineteenth-century America. How does the novel portray him? Do you come to understand his deep convictions? In the story of his marriage to Ann Eliza, he essentially gets the last word. Why?
5. What kind of man is Chauncey Webb? And Gilbert? What do they tell you about polygamy?
6. Jordan is an unlikely detective. What makes him a good sleuth? What are his blind spots?
7. Many of the people who help Jordan–Mr. Heber, Maureen, Kelly, and Tom–are Mormons. What do you think Ebershoff is saying by this?
8. Like many mysteries, Jordan’s story is a quest. What is he searching for?
9. Why do you think Ebershoff wrote the novel with so many voices? How do the voices play off one another? Who is your favorite narrator? Who is your least favorite?
10. Why do you think Ebershoff wrote a fictional memoir by Ann Eliza Young, and why are some chapters missing? As he says in his Author’s Note, the real Ann Eliza Young actually wrote two memoirs: Wife No. 19, first published in 1875, and a second book, Life in Mormon Bondage, which came out in 1908. Based on your reading of The 19th Wife, what kind of memoirist do you think the real Ann Eliza Young was?
11. One reviewer has said The 19th Wife is “that rare book that effortlessly explicates and entertains all at once.” Do you agree? How does the novel manage this balance?
12. Were you surprised by how the stories of Ann Eliza and Jordan come together? Did you predict it?
13. Does Jordan’s story end as you hoped it would? Does it end as Jordan hoped it would?
14. What do you think ultimately happened to Ann Eliza Young?