Sometimes I think the audio version of a book ruins the book for me; other times, it’s the book itself that doesn’t work. In the case of Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife, I think it was both. I am clearly in the minority here — just type “A Reliable Wife” into the Google Book Blog Search — but I’m okay with that.
The novel, which opens in 1907, tells of Ralph Truitt, a wealthy businessman and bachelor living in rural Wisconsin, and the lovely Catherine Land of Chicago, who answers Ralph’s newspaper ad for a “reliable wife.” Catherine is not who she seems to be, and she has plans of her own — but then, so does Ralph. A third main character turns up as the story develops, but I’m not going to tell you who s/he is or how s/he relates to the other characters. In this case, I think it’s more fun to find out as you’re reading.
I also won’t spoil the plot by laying it out here, as the redeeming aspect of the novel for me was hearing the story unfold. Instead, check out the publisher’s website or the GoodReads summary if you’d like more about the story. Suffice to say that there were some nice big plot twists that forced me to readjust my sense of the story and where each character fit. It was the story that kept me listening, even when the characters and the writing kind of made me want to quit.
I didn’t like a single one of the three main characters in A Reliable Wife. They were cruel, manipulative, and — in my opinion — completely devoid of redeeming qualities. They were complicated without being complex; each had plenty of backstory and motivation, yet I felt Goolrick laid each component of each character out so blatantly that the end result was tangled mess of anecdotes instead of a nuanced, intriguing being. Goolrick delves into each character’s history, but that didn’t increase my affection for them. I need at least one character in a book that I love or hate, so that I’m invested in his or her fate. None of Goolrick’s characters elicited either of these feelings from me; instead, I really couldn’t care less what became of them. I got to the end of the book, thought, “Huh, okay then,” and went on with my life.
I also had a hard time with the writing. To me it was too staccato, too simplistic, too repetitive. There were a lot of parallel sentence structures and repeated words or phrases. The short sentences seemed designed to express an urgency or intensity I didn’t feel; instead, they came across as overdramatic. The constant use of sentence fragments, which I do not usually mind, rendered the text too choppy to read smoothly. For example, why does the following line require three periods?
She wanted a cigarette. A cigarette in her little silver holder. And a glass of whiskey, one glass to take away the chill.
The whole book read like that, and it didn’t work for me.
Also, I got really tired of hearing how much the characters wanted each other. One example (of far too many):
He looked at Catherine. He imagined her in bed. In his bed.
He wanted to hold her face until she finally raised her eyes to look at him. He wanted to look in her eyes and know who she was, who she was in her hidden soul. He wanted to kiss her with his hands on her cheeks. He wanted her to answer his kiss with an eager tongue. He wanted to feel the moment her hand moved beneath the cotton of his shirt and touched, for the very first time, the hair of his chest, the skin of his body. He wanted her to want all this and he wanted her to fear it, but he wanted her to submit.
Not that I have anything against such passages in general, but in this book, where they were so numerous, so long and often gratuitous, I got tired of them.
The reader for the audio production was Mark Feuerstein. The force with which he uttered every word of the novel only accentuated the features I disliked: short, choppy writing, overdone drama, bizarre sentence structure. I’ve not heard him read anything else, so I can’t say if his narration of A Reliable Wife reflects his usual style. I’d be willing to give him another chance. Probably only one, though.
Overall, in print or as an audiobook, I wasn’t impressed. It just goes to show you there’s no one book that everyone everywhere will enjoy!