First the summary from the publisher, Algonquin Books.
Rural Wisconsin, 1909. In the bitter cold, Ralph Truitt, a successful businessman, stands alone on a train platform waiting for the woman who answered his newspaper advertisement for “a reliable wife.” But when Catherine Land steps off the train from Chicago, she’s not the “simple, honest woman” that Ralph is expecting. She is both complex and devious, haunted by a terrible past and motivated by greed. Her plan is simple: she will win this man’s devotion, and then, ever so slowly, she will poison him and leave Wisconsin a wealthy widow. What she has not counted on, though, is that Truitt — a passionate man with his own dark secrets —has plans of his own for his new wife. Isolated on a remote estate and imprisoned by relentless snow, the story of Ralph and Catherine unfolds in unimaginable ways.
With echoes of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, Robert Goolrick’s intoxicating debut novel delivers a classic tale of suspenseful seduction, set in a world that seems to have gone temporarily off its axis.
This one took me awhile. First it came in the chapter-a-day emails I get from the library each week. The character of Ralph Truitt dominates the early chapters and his voice was so true and compelling that I was eager to read more. During one of my many used book selling trips prior to the move last summer, I found a copy in excellent shape and brought it home with me. So much for getting rid of books.
I started back in on the story sometime in July, but I couldn’t stay with it. There was just nothing there to pull me in. Of course the fact that my wife was due to have a baby at any moment might have contributed to my lack of attention, but now that I’ve read the book I’m sure that I was simply trying to read the book in the wrong season. This is very much a cold weather read and if you had to pick the best month to read A Reliable Wife, it would definitely be January.
It is not only that the book is set in the middle of a brutal winter, but that the story itself is a story of the cold. The writing is precise and spare and each of the three main characters are stark in their isolation. However, underneath the icy surface of this story, the heat of frustrated longing is palpable. If you are fascinated by the idea of redemption, you don’t mind more narrative than action and you have a very warm and cozy blanket, this could be the book for you. There’s still plenty of cold days left!