A Reliable Wife (Paperback)
Algonquin Books, 9781565129771, 320pp.
Publication Date: January 5, 2010
Summer '10 Reading Group List
— Leslie Reiner, Inkwood Books, Tampa, FL
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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.
About the Author
Praise For A Reliable Wife…
“After breaking through with a disquieting memoir . . . Goolrick applies his storytelling talents to a debut novel, set in 1907, about icy duplicity and heated vengeance. . . . A sublime murder ballad that doesn’t turn out at all the way one might expect.” —Kirkus, starred review
A Reliable Wife “generates some real suspense . . .This darkly nuanced psychological tale builds to a strong and satisfying close.” –Publishers Weekly
“Debut novelist Robert Goolrick has managed a minor miracle. In the kind of precise, literary prose that breathes life into his complicated characters, Goolrick, author of an acclaimed memoir, has also managed a rousing historical potboiler, an organic mystery rooted in the real social ills of turn-of-the-century America. Whether writing about the farms of Wisconsin or the fleshpots of St. Louis, he re-creates a full-bodied, believable environment, and he peoples these worlds with characters as sensitive, as tortured as any contemporary souls. The result is a detailed exploration of love, despair, and the distance people can travel to reach each other that is as surprising, and as suspenseful, as any beach read.” -- Boston Globe
A “glittering, poisoned ice cube of a tale . . . Has a little of the Gothic feel of Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca--complete with a dead first wife, suspicious housekeeper, and gorgeous mansion . . . A Reliable Wife is eminently readable and should delight fans of old-fashioned Gothic romances . . . Goolrick is a solid wordsmith, and he handily manages the impressive task of making readers care about a woman bent on cold-blooded murder. And generating the proper Gothic ambience in Wisconsin is no mean feat.” -- Christian Science Monitor
A "fierce and sophisticated debut novel . . . In its best moments, A Reliable Wife calls to mind the chilling tales of Poe and Stephen King, and at its core this is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. It melds a plot drenched in suspense with expertly realized characters and psychological realism. The fate of those characters is in doubt right up to this relentless story’s intense final pages, and Goolrick’s ability to sustain that tension is a tribute to his craftsmanship and one of the true pleasures of a fine first novel." -- Bookpage
“A killer debut novel . . . suspenseful and erotic . . . [A] chillingly engrossing plot . . . good to the riveting end.” –USA Today
"A gothic tale of . . . smoldering desire. . . . The novel is deliciously wicked and tense, presented as a series of sepia tableaux, interrupted by flashes of bright red violence. . . . Once you've fallen into the miasma of A Reliable Wife, it's intoxicating." –Washington Post
“Goolrick twists a familiar story, refashioning it into something completely original. . . . Few have permeated their narratives with gothic elements and suspense to such great effect. . . . The unforeseen conclusion provides a big payoff for readers of this tension-laden debut from a promising new talent." - Booklist
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
- The novel’s setting and strong sense of place seem to echo its mood and themes. What role does the wintry Wisconsin landscape play? And the very different, opulent setting of St. Louis?
- Ralph’s and Catherine’s story frequently pauses to give brief, frequently horrific glimpses into the lives of others. Ralph remarks on the violence that surrounds them in Wisconsin, saying, “They hate their lives. They start to hate each other. They lose their minds, wanting things they can’t have.” How do these vignettes of madness and violence contribute to the novel’s themes?
- Catherine imagines herself as an actress playing a series of roles, the one of Ralph’s wife being the starring role of a lifetime. Where in the novel might you see a glimpse of the real Catherine Land? Do you feel like you ever get to know this woman, or is she always hidden behind a façade?
- The encounter between Catherine and her sister Alice is one of the pivotal moments of the novel. How do you view these two women after reading the story of their origins? Why do the two sisters wind up on such different paths? Why does Catherine ultimately lose hope in Alice’s redemption?
- The idea of escape runs throughout the novel. Ralph thinks, “Some things you escape... You don’t escape the things, mostly bad, that just happen to you.” What circumstances trap characters permanently? How do characters attempt to escape their circumstances? When, if ever, do they succeed? How does the bird imagery that runs through the book relate to the idea of imprisonment and escape?
- “You can live with hopelessness for only so long before you are, in fact, hopeless,” reflects Ralph. Which characters here are truly hopeless. Alice? Antonio? Ralph himself? Do you see any glimmers of hope in the story?
- Why, in your opinion, does Ralph allow himself to be gradually poisoned, even after he’s aware of what’s happening to him? What does this decision say about his character?
- Why does Catherine become obsessed with nurturing and reviving the “secret garden” of Ralph’s mansion? What insights does this preoccupation reveal about Catherine’s character?
- Does Catherine live up in any way to the advertisement Ralph places in the newspaper (p. 20)? Why or why not?
- Did you have sympathy for any of the characters? Did this change as time went on?
- At the onset of A Reliable Wife the characters are not good people. They have done bad things and have lived thoughtlessly. In the end how do they find hope?
- The author directly or indirectly references several classic novels --- by the Brontë sisters, Daphne DuMaurier and Frances Hodgson Burnett, among others. How does A Reliable Wife play with the conventions of these classic Gothic novels? Does the book seem more shocking or provocative as a result?