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A Reliable Wife

January 23, 2012

Robert Goolrick’s novel A Reliable Wife looked like a quick read for a gray day, and it was; I whipped through it in a couple of hours. It was a little denser and more satisfying than I had expected, especially with regard to living through winter weather in the north. I was glad I had saved it for January, after winning it at Savvy Verse and Wit sometime this fall.

The story begins with Ralph Truitt, who lives in a small, northern town to which his family has given their last name, waiting for the woman who has answered his ad for “a reliable wife.” He is standing on the train platform, trying not to look as desperate and lonely and frozen as he feels:

“the trick, Ralph knew, is not to give in. Not to hunch your shoulders in the cold or stamp your feet or blow warm breath into cold palms. The trick is to relax into the cold, accept that it had come and would stay a long time. To lean into it, as you might lean into a warm spring wind. The trick was to become part of it, so that you didn’t end a backbreaking day in the cold with rigid, aching shoulders and red hands.”

I’ve never learned this trick; I end most days in Ohio from November through March with rigid, aching shoulders and red hands.

The story continues with an introduction to the woman, Catherine Land, who has come to pose as a “reliable wife” and who is as desperate as Ralph himself:

“She believed in the miraculous. Or she had, until she reached an age when, all of a sudden, she realized that the life she was living was, in fact, her life. The clay of her being, so long infinitely malleable, had been formed, hardened into what now seemed a palpable, unchanging object, a shell she inhabited. It shocked her then.”

I think of this whenever someone—usually someone the age of my children–talks about why I chose to live in the frozen north. Because choices like that don’t always look like what they are at the time.

Ralph and Catherine’s story is about restraint. They fall in love, and yet over and over “he wanted everything. He did nothing.” She keeps her secrets, and then discovers that he already knows them. The reader learns Catherine’s secrets, thinking Ralph doesn’t know them, and as one reads, one grows fond of her as he does, although still learning more about her, like finding out her attitude towards suffering:

“She passed the fruit markets, filled with bright vegetables even in winter, and the vendors, their heads wrapped in kerchiefs against the cold, their hands in fingerless gloves, hawking their wares in German and Italian accents, assisted by wretched children in hand-me-down cotton dresses in the middle of winter. She walked without pity through the sea of destitution that washed over her.”

Even though Ralph and Catherine are learning more about each other, their silences endure:
“How could her heart not go out to him, knowing what she knew, steeled as she was?
He had no mechanism to discuss his sorrow.”

One of the many secrets the two share is that suffering in a small town can be just as horrific as the impersonal suffering Catherine has witnessed in the big city, and they struggle to keep themselves hardened enough to survive while doing what they can to minimize their own pain and that of others around them:

“A man ate an entire dictionary and died. Larsen cut off his own burned hand with an axe, believing the burn which would not heal was the kiss of the devil, the ineradicable mark of sin, while Mrs. Larsen watched and screamed. As a boy of fifteen, he had fought in the Civil War and come home without a scratch. Now he lay, a drooling idiot with one hand, in an expensive Catholic hospital in Chicago, paid for by Truitt, while Mrs. Larsen never mentioned him again. Such things happened.”

Catherine ultimately realizes that “marriage itself brought a kind of simple pleasure, a pleasure in the continued company of another human being, the act of caring, or carrying with you the thought of someone else.”

In the end, it is Ralph and Catherine’s silence, their unwillingness to burden the other one with the weight of their past sins, that makes them, at least for each other, reliable partners. The pace of their story never falters, and the setting–an island of cold silence in a vast, frozen wasteland—is so pervasive that it will give any reader the shivers. Even if you already have them, as I always do, this time of year.

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2012 7:18 am

    I am so glad you enjoyed this one. I still have not read it, but this is the year of reading more from my shelves.

    • January 23, 2012 5:46 pm

      Thanks for sending it to me–I might never have read it, otherwise.

  2. freshhell permalink
    January 23, 2012 10:43 am

    I can’t wait to finish it. And then I’ll look into the Wisconsin Death Trip book he references. I’m saving that up for later. I love Goolrick and I’m so glad I met him and got to hear him speak last fall.

    • January 23, 2012 5:47 pm

      Yes, the “death trip” thing sounds interesting. Living in a small town in the grip of winter, I didn’t pursue it. Ignorance is bliss.

  3. January 23, 2012 11:06 am

    I have this book on my TBR pile and have since it came out. I really must read it!

  4. January 23, 2012 1:58 pm

    That trick with the cold? I never learned it either, but it turns out it also works with oppressive, stifling heat. And since I do it better with heat, I no longer live in the North. 😉 This sounds a bit dull – do you think you enjoyed it because it was January, or because it’s enjoyable?

    • January 23, 2012 5:20 pm

      Definitely because it’s enjoyable. It takes some kind of genius to make me like a story where the cold landscape is practically another character.

      • January 23, 2012 5:22 pm

        If I made it sound dull, it’s because it’s got big secrets and I didn’t want to give them away. You could read the last page–as I know one of your daughters usually does–and not know why it turned out like this.

  5. January 23, 2012 2:56 pm

    Sounds good, actually.

  6. January 23, 2012 4:34 pm

    Brr chill. I hate summers here, but reading descriptions like that make me glad to live in AZ in the winter!

  7. January 24, 2012 4:44 pm

    I keep hemming and hawing about this book, but I think you’ve pushed me over the edge to try it. Let me know if that trick works!

  8. January 26, 2012 10:57 am

    I have that on my shelves I think (unless it got purged last month). I’d like to learn to stand fast with I tried the trick with the cold, because my shoulders are super tense all writer.

    • January 29, 2012 8:21 am

      The landscape described is colder and snowier than where I live, but I still react to Ohio as if it were this kind of landscape, because I moved here from a warmer climate zone.

  9. January 29, 2012 12:42 am

    I lovethe quotes you included, bet I’d like the book. Like you, I’ve never been able to lean into the cold. Good thing it’s been a mild Ohio winter so far!

  10. July 2, 2012 11:43 am

    The cold WAS another character! I keep waiting for the season to be OVER. I wonder how this book would be as a reread in audio format? Maybe someday.

    “Such things happened.”

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