by Robert Goolrick; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books, 2009, 291 pages, $23.95
Dr. Schmetzer is professor of psychiatry, Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis.
The book A Reliable Wife is Mr. Goolrick's second published book but his first novel. Set in Wisconsin during the cold, snowy fall and winter of 1907–1908, it is a tragedy of ordinary life, revolving around the passions, desires, and madness of three people—Ralph Truitt, a wealthy Midwestern industrialist who places an advertisement for a "reliable wife" for a second marriage; Catherine Land, the woman whose answer to the ad intrigues Mr. Truitt; and Antonio Moretti, a young man who is most likely the offspring of the first Mrs. Truitt and her Italian piano tutor. The first few words of the book induce a sense of foreboding, encased as they are in the cold imagery of the moment and the fog of an enigmatic past. The story unfolds inexorably toward new tragedies earned by past deeds. But there is also change and redemption in this tale. The reader comes to know each major character ever so slowly. Each is likable and repellant in his or her own special ways.
The book is set in a time torn by insanity as a side effect of the Industrial Revolution. People who drift aimlessly with little or nothing to anchor them are pitted against those driven by their own internal wants and demands. One cuts off his own hand because he sees a "sign of the devil" on it, others murder their families or kill themselves, and yet another beats his son bloody over the sins of the mother. Some of these events are told in passing, whereas others combine to outline the main thread or subplots of this novel. This is a book that any mental health clinician of today will likely find compelling, even though it is from a different time and mind state. The characters are quite well drawn; the writing exotically descriptive; and the story believable, nearly inevitable. I found it difficult to set aside until finishing the final word.
The reviewer reports no competing interests.