I always felt there had to be something really interesting about plural marriage. I guess “Big Love” handles some of this but I’ve never seen it, so when a friend recommended The Nineteenth Wife I jumped on it, and I wasn’t disappointed. David Ebershoff (whose previous novel, Pasadena, I found a little underwhelming), is a serious guy so although there is by nature some sensationalism here — for instance, the marital record-keeping of a polygamist– it’s not the point. Ebershoff works with one contemporary narrator, Jordan, the gay mouthy apostate “First,” which is to say the fundamental off-shoot of the mainstream Mormon church. These are the ones with the prairie dresses and the numerous wives. Still. So Jordan, whose mother kicked him out of the house at 14, is drawn back into her orbit when she’s accused of shooting her husband.
The rest of the narration comes from various historic documents which Ebershoff has either created or massaged — notably the memoir of Ann Eliza Young, nominally the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, who left the church in the 1870s and went on a national lecture tour. It’s a little irritating — I can see that this is the best way to tell the story, but I’m a little tired of the fragmented narrative. Still, Ebershoff’s ventriloquism is excellent — no anachronisms. No nineteenth-century women fretting about self-actualization, for instance. At issue, really, is the power balance between men and women in these communities, and the question of what damage is done to the men, as well as the women.