Tidewater Review - July 2009
A Reliable Wife
A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 291 pages. $23.95.
The year is 1907, the place is a small town in Wisconsin, the time is fall. The richest man in town is standing on the train platform, waiting for a woman who has answered his personal advertisement for a bride. He’s shy, terribly lonely and hoping for contentment, if not love. He knows all too well that money can’t buy happiness.
Ralph Truitt is restless. The train is running late, and the bitter wind and smell of snow in the air warn him that a blizzard is on its way. He’s anxious to get on his way to his house in the country, away from the curious eyes of the townspeople on the platform with him. All of them are in his employ in his vast businesses that made a fortune for him and his father before him. All are aware, as people are in small towns, of his presence and the reason he’s standing by himself, all of them looking down the track.
Everybody in town knows his tragic past – his late father’s indulgence in his son, complete with a long late adolescence abroad to sow his wild oats, his marriage to a flamboyant Italian beauty who reluctantly came home with him to Wisconsin to take over the business realm when Ralph’s father dies. They know of his heartbreak when his beloved little daughter suffered brain fever that turned her mind into mush, and how she died, rejected by her frivolous Italian mother.
Everybody knew about the fabulous house he built for his wife, the Italian-style palace with marble floors, imported furniture, a walled garden in which nothing grew in Wisconsin’s long, cold winters. They all knew the scandal of the Italian music teacher who came to teach the wayward son who looked so much like the music teacher, the boy whom Truitt beat unmercifully after Truitt’s wife ran away with the musician.
Now Truitt, at the age of 54, could no longer bear the loneliness and his burning need for the comfort of sex in his unhappy life.
And the train was late, even as the first stinging snowflakes quickly turned into a furious blizzard.
When Catherine Land, the modestly dressed woman, stepped on the platform, Truitt realized immediately that her face didn’t match the photo she had sent him when she accepted his advertisement. “She’s a liar,” he said to himself, but he was resigned to the bargain and they set off for the country house in which he was born. The palace had been empty since his wife had departed 20 years earlier.
The reader knows from the start that this arranged matter is not what it seems. Both parties are frightened and disappointed with the first meeting. Catherine lived a very different life in Chicago, a life about which Truitt is ignorant, a life that Catherine reviewed in her mind on the long train ride. Her checkered past is whittled away on the journey as she discards her rich clothes and changes into drab woolens, keeping only a dowdy wardrobe and a small blue bottle of secret contents.
In this mental chaos, a deer dashes across the rutted road, brushing the horses in its panic. The carriage flips into a snowbank and Truitt is thrown under the wheels. Catherine takes over the reins and helps him into the carriage with a terrible gash in his head. He tells her to let the horses take them home before he passes out.
Mr. and Mrs. Larsen, Truitt’s housekeeper, cook and handyman, help bring the injured man into the house, and Catherine organizes his care. Cleaning the wound, a cut that shows bone, she pours iodine into the gash and directs Mrs. Larsen to pinch the skin together while she opens her sewing kit and stitches the skin together.
In his fevered convalescence, Truitt is aware of the two women who stay with him day and night, one or the other always beside him bathing, putting snow packs on his brow, bundling him in his chills and feeding dark broth into his slack mouth. The voices of the women comfort him, and his random thoughts contrast their gentle talk with his late mother’s querulous voice, raw with a litany of sins of the unchurched.
As she ranted about hell, he asked her what hell was like. She stabbed him with her sewing needle, causing excruciating pain that left a festering sore. He hated her from that moment. He learned from her mandatory Bible reading that man was evicted from Eden for lust for a woman. Lust was original sin and he was a sinner.
As Truitt recovered from the fall, he appreciated Catherine more and more. He relied on her gentle voice, her modest company and her piano playing in the evenings as he smoked in front of the fire. He silently recalled his dissolute youth in Europe, followed by falling in love with Emilia, an Italian girl of minor nobility whose charm was practice for finding a rich husband. Truitt’s generous father sent a great deal of money with the caveat that Truitt come home to run the business empire.
The marriage had been a disaster from the first. As Truitt’s mind wanders, Catherine is patient. Every night she turns the little blue bottle in her hands and thinks about her previous hard life. The reader begins to feel drowsy with all the navel-gazing of silent revelations of this oddly matched pair.
Truitt has made up his mind. He confesses the mistakes of his life to Catherine and tells her they will be married at Thanksgiving. The wheel has come full turn and the book becomes darker, more complicated.
Truitt has found where his only son lives after running away at age 14. Truitt knows the young man is not his blood son, but regrets how his rage at Emilia’s infidelity was taken out on the innocent child.
Catherine’s piano playing kindles Truitt’s recollection of the boy’s talent at the piano and he hires private detectives to locate the lost “son.” He’s in St. Louis, playing piano in a whorehouse. Truitt wants him to come home again.
Suddenly, the plot turns ominous. I can’t give away the direction of suspenseful dread that ensues, but at that moment, this reader could not put down the book. In spite of the foreshadowing in the previous long passages of the story, the new tone was electrifying.
Into this cozy atmosphere of growing affection and gratitude, some characters learn grace and peace, some suffer qualms of conscience and some experiment with murder. There’s prudery and licentiousness, passion both sacred and profane. Overriding it all is the power of lust, the primal force for good and evil.