From the first paragraph of The Reliable Wife, I heard music. Robert Goolrick has a poet's rhythm with his words. His writing sounds like water moving towards high tide. He uses repetition, adding a few more words or another thought each time to finally build to the climactic revelation or pronouncement. Goolrick also has an artist's eye with presentation. The story starts with simplicity and builds to opulence and decadence. It starts with inhibition and ends with a tempest.
Within the first few paragraphs we meet Ralph Truitt. He is waiting on a snow-laden platform for a woman to arrive by train. We learn he carries sorrow, humiliation, and hope. But just as Ralph patiently waits for the woman to arrive, the reader must wait to learn about these burdens. Does it seem strange that hope would be a burden? Ralph has spent half of his life without needing hope and the other half bringing his hope to the painful climax that led him to the platform, waiting for a train.
A "simple honest woman," Catherine Land, steps off the train. She has sent Ralph a letter with this declaration, and he has sent for her to become his wife.
It is 1907 and Catherine has come to a Wisconsin town dark and heavy with the beginning of the winter snow. Within hours, in the heavy, fast-falling snow, she has lost the last tangible reminders of her old life. Just as the landscape and houses are buried under the snow, Catherine and Ralph's prior lives are buried deep within themselves. Goolrick dots his story with tales of people driven mad by winter and isolation, and what they must face about themselves when there is nothing else to distract them.
The tale accelerates when Ralph asks Catherine to travel to St. Louis to find his runaway son and bring him home. It is at this point that the layers begin to tear away, that we discover the story that has only been hinted at so far.
What begins with starkness and distance and rectitude becomes a tale of sensuality and an overflowing of emotion. The characters struggle to tear away their misery, and they begin by tearing away their layers of clothing. They stand naked before each other, but are terribly hidden otherwise. Goolrick masterfully shows us their pain and their passion.
This is a high-intensity tale of sex and repression and murderous thoughts, of people longing to forgive themselves and each other, of incredible pain. In describing what formed Ralph's character, Goolrick says: "That his mother had said, needle to the bone, that the way to goodness, the only way, was through pain and suffering. He could have said that grief had left him wholly good." There's enough pain and suffering to go around, but will they find redemption?