Lamentably, I’ve fallen a bit behind here (it was bound to happen — again — eventually). Fortunately, I had a mostly-complete draft waiting to help me get back on track quickly. Let’s pretend this entry appeared in late August, 2010 rather than January or 2011, shall we?
Having just returned [ed. note: ‘Just’. Ha!] from my annual escape to most-relaxing Muskoka – and my corresponding annual week-long book-binge – I thought that perhaps the next few entries might be grouped together as “Cottage Reads”. However, the choices I made in selecting said cottage reads has afforded me an unintentional yet more coherent theme: “Beautiful Books That Quite Thoroughly Broke My Heart”.
The first such book was the biggest surprise. As is so often the case with me, I picked up Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife because the cover caught my eye (note for design aficionados: the cover of the edition I picked up was silk finish overall with spot gloss on the title decal – on the way out of the book store we discovered an all-gloss version on a ‘recommended’ display, to which I said: No thank you! Matte with spot gloss all the way).
A Reliable Wife isn’t revolutionary: it’s a fairly standard gothic tale, set against a bleak, wintery midwestern American landscape. One of the reasons it was such an enjoyable read is that between the sinister and damaged characters, the isolated, haunting setting and stories of domestic crime and insanity stories that pepper the novel (an obsession of Ralph’s as well as a rather grim, recurring local phenomenon) coalesce to form that classically-gothic atmosphere of doom and excitement that I loved in books like Louisa May Alcott’s Long Fatal Love Chase and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.
The plot itself is also quite simple: a wealthy man (Ralph) posts ads in newspapers across the country looking for a wife, but the woman he selects (Catherine) is not the plain, simple woman she presents herself to be. She’s a beautiful woman with a past, and from the very start her plan is to marry Ralph, poison him, and inherit all his wealth.
Beginning with Catherine’s arrival by train, the narrative unfolds through a slow peeling-back of the onion-like layers of the story’s complex and deeply-flawed characters. There is some interesting nuance in the progression of the plot, which moves in two directions – forward through the lives of the characters in the story’s present, as well as sporadically through their pasts – not in order of chronology but rather spiralling inward, from the artifice each presents to the world, down to that which is most protected and secret for each character.
We are first introduced to the most superficial layer of each character: the mask that they show to the world; the lies that they tell themselves and each other. As the story progresses, we gain increasingly deep glimpses into not only each character’s past and motivations, but what remains of their old innocence.
Perhaps most notable about this book was that the surprises came not from the thrill of gothic cruelty the characters easily showed each other — indeed, their capacity for deception, betrayal and murderous intent feels entirely commonplace and quite inevitable. The surprises lie instead in their simulataneous ability to feel great compassion towards each other — to compliment huge acts of violence and betrayal with startling moments of kindness, and perhaps even more unexpectedly, forgiveness. The surprising love story that unfolds is strange, dark and alarming. Yet somehow, it is also achingly moving. The heartbreaking beauty lies in the small kindness and genuine love they somehow manage to show each other even as they run headlong towards tragedy.
It was how deeply I empathized with the characters, in spite of the many seemingly unforgiveable acts they commit throughout the narrative, that I consider a true testament to Goolrick’s excellent writing and characterization. Compared to Wuthering Heights, I loved (this) Catherine and Ralph; both tragic and flawed and often horrible, but in ways that are ultimately heartbreaking rather than alienating.
By way of a side note, this book also gave a really fascinating overview of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning — most notably, the pleasant, almost erotic early symptoms that I had never heard of before, but which seem obvious in context of the poison’s historical use — in very small doses — as a recreational drug.