It took me two tries to get into A Reliable Wife, because of the “incantatory” business. Robert Goolrick has crafted a quirky narrative voice with many short declarative sentences, lists of objects, feelings, behaviors, and a slippery way of getting in and out of scenes. The novel opens in a snowstorm on a train platform and it seemed, at first, both ominous and gratuitously arty. What kept me going was the premise: in the fall of 1907 Ralph Truitt, lonely industrialist, has sent away for a woman to come to Truitt, Wisconsin and take her place at his side as his wife. It’s a tough first scene: Goolrick has the courage to make the setting unpleasant and the character unsympathetic, so if you aren’t hooked by curiosity, you may stop reading. But once we get into prospective bride Catherine Land’s head, as she prepares for her meeting with Truitt, it’s hard to turn away from this spectacle, for Catherine is not what she has led Truitt to believe. And within a few more pages, as his horses run away with his carriage in the dark blizzard, the drama starts to blossom. The rest is so tightly constructed that I can’t add many more plot details without ruining the whole thing.
You could say this was a novel about trust. You could say it was a novel about patience. Or redemption. One point that struck me is the way Goolrick insists on the consequences of heedless selfishness. I’m not kidding about the train wreck business; bad things happen to pretty much every character here, and a good many of them are undeserved. Some, on the other hand, are not just merited, but courted. Most of these characters are familiar with the impulse toward self-destruction. Here’s a passage that pretty much sums up both Goolrick’s style and the dilemmas the characters face: “She had no knowledge of good. She had no heart and so no sense of the good thing, the right thing, and she had no field on which to wage the battle that was, in fact, raging in her.” It’s borderline annoying, when you read individual sentences, but they sweep you along when they’re strung together into the narrative. And Goolrick does the essential things really well: he makes you care about the characters, he puts them into conflict with each other, he increases the pressure. Ultimately, you can’t turn away. That’s why we call it a train wreck.