A Reliable Wife

[openbook booknumber=”9781565129771″][rating:4/5]

He placed a notice in a Chicago paper, an advertisement for a “reliable wife.” She responded, saying that she was “a simple, honest woman.” She was, of course, anything but honest, and the only simple thing about her was her single-minded determination to marry this man and then kill him, slowly and carefully, leaving herself a wealthy widow. What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own.

Whatever you think this book is about when you pick it up, prepare to have your expectations totally blown out of the water. In A Reliable Wife three characters get tangled in a web of lies, deceit and shame as they all struggle with difficult life situations, hidden and open desires, and bitter and terrible pasts. These are not good people, and yet each in their own way beg for redemption even while believing they deserve none. It is a riveting book about the pain people can inflict on one another and themselves, the bitterness that grows out of that, the helplessness of some people to continue the cycle and the ultimate despair from the belief that the long cold winter will never end.


Her true heart, however, was buried so far inside her, so gone beneath the vast blanket of her lies and deceptions and whims. Like her jewels now beneath the snow, it lay hidden until some thaw might some to it. She had no way of knowing, of course, whether this heart she imagined herself to have was, in fact, real in any way. Perhaps it was like the soldier’s severed arm that keeps throbbing for years, or like a broken bone that aches at the approach of a storm. Perhaps the heart she imagined was one she had never really had at all. But how did they do it, those women she saw on the street, laughing with their charming or their ill-tempered children in restaurants, in train stations, everywhere around her? Any why was she left out of the whole sentimental panorama she felt eddying around her every day of her life?

The novel opens when Catherine Land answers an ad in a Chicago paper looking for a reliable wife. She plans to marry the rich man from the country, Ralph Truitt, and then slowly kill him with arsenic. Then take the money and live in splendor for the rest of her life with her “useless lover”. As the story unfolds about these three characters you find out that each feels that they are beyond redemption. In a lot of ways they are all horrible people that have done horrible things, they’ve lived bad lives or had bad things inflicted on them by design or by chance and they feel they can never escape. The story is dark and cold and full of despair, sadness and loss. At the same time you can’t help flipping pages wanting to see what will happen to these people next, will things ever change for these people? How did they turn out the way they did? What exactly are the relationships between them and why are things this way? The way the lives and circumstances of these people crossed and tangled made the story very interesting as you watched the characters develop and change and come more and more into the light as the story progressed.

I was also impressed at how sympathetically each of the characters was painted. Especially since you know from the start that one of them is there to slowly murder another. Regardless of you knowing Catherine is plotting a murder she becomes a very sympathetic character and you watch as she agonizes over the decision and you see how frightened and confused she becomes as the story progresses in a very realistic manner. It was wonderful to read about all three of them at their best and at their worst and yet understanding them as human beings anyway despite their monstrous pasts.

I’ve heard on twitter some people complained that A Reliable Wife had too much sex in it. I think that sex, in this book, was used as a very strong illustration for the longing and desires that all of the characters have. They all want love and acceptance, they all want to feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves or perhaps just want to feel free from obligation. Sex is used to illustrate those desires and also to shine a light on how the three relate to one another and how that changes and grows as the book progresses. I think it was very well done and without it we couldn’t have understood the characters on the level that we did. The sex showed vulnerability in people that from the outside looked strong and unflinching, wicked and untouchable.

For fans of historical fiction that has a bitter edge of realism, and shows a truly dark underside to all of humankind both redeemable and unreedemable than I really think you should check out this book. Whatever you think it is, it’s not. It’s so much more.

2 Responses to A Reliable Wife

  1. Anna
    8:01 am on April 24th, 2010

    This book has been sitting on my shelf for awhile. I must admit that I’ve been a little hesitant to read it given what I’ve heard about all the sexual content. Thanks for clarifying that. Sounds like it’s worth giving a try.

  2. Aarti
    9:19 pm on April 24th, 2010

    My sister read this for book club and said that it was definitely racier than some other books they’ve read recently! I can see why! I have very different taste in books than my sister, but as she said this was “ok,” I don’t know if I would love it or hate it!

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