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Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
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A-A Reliable WifeRobert Goolrick is the author of The End of the World as We Know It (2007), a memoir of a Southern family. A Reliable Wife is his first novel.

The Story: When Ralph Truitt advertises in the newspaper for a "reliable wife" to join a "country businessman" for "practical, not romantic reasons" in Truitt, Wisconsin, in 1907, neither he nor the woman who answers his ad, Catherine Land from Chicago, is what each claims to be. Rather than a country bumpkin, Ralph is a successful entrepreneur and estranged father. Instead of a frumpy missionary’s daughter and "simple, honest woman," the striking Catherine is a former prostitute, opium addict, and gold digger after only one thing—Ralph’s money. Even worse, Catherine, after winning her new husband’s devotion, plans to poison him to obtain his wealth. But will love change her intent?
Algonquin. 304 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 1565125967

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Clea Simon

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Goolrick] also has done his homework, vividly evoking the Gilded Age (the book takes place in 1907) in descriptions of a bawdy, wealthy St. Louis and its stark contrast, a Wisconsin countryside marked by insanity, infidelity and cruelty. But his command of psychology is his key achievement, and even though some dialogue verges on stilted, Goolrick’s stately, freeze-frame narrative style mitigates that." Carlo Wolff

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"[Goolrick] lets us discover for ourselves the breadth and magnitude of dysfunction and the deadly conspiracy in which Catherine and Ralph are, ironically, both complicit. Like the closing revelations in Goolrick’s The End of the World as We Know It, his moving memoir about the tragic toll that alcoholism took on his family, the final scenes in this sad and suspenseful debut novel are riveting." Carol Memmott

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Ron Charles

Charlotte Observer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] gothic tale that’s as much psychological as it is plot driven. … Though beautifully crafted, the book’s opening chapters proceed at a glacial pace, a flaw that will tempt some readers to put this novel down. That would be a mistake." Tamara Titus

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"A Reliable Wife is eminently readable and should delight fans of old-fashioned Gothic romances, but ultimately, it’s no [Daphne DuMaurier’s] Rebecca. For one, the plot hinges on a big twist … that I guessed well in advance." Yvonne Zipp

Critical Summary

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.