Friday, October 16, 2009

Out of Character

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, seems on its surface to be exactly the kind of book I would hate. Thematically, it's about how the human condition is ruled by lusts of the flesh. In language, it uses every possible poetic way you can say "lusts of the flesh," "delights of the body," and "sensual pleasures." Now there's a combo to set my blood boiling, right?

I might not be a good enough writer to make my point with examples like that. I have a hard time with "literary" novels, which we've been over here. But part of my awkwardness with them runs up against the fact that I have trouble telling the good ones from the bad ones. This is largely due to the fact that books that are "good" and ones that I enjoy do not reliably create a large segment in the Venn diagram.

So overall, here are the general facts of the case:

The book was extremely descriptive, and a lot of time was spent on the emotional state of the characters. This is generally a bad sign, but there was so much action going on on that level, and so much history revealed in those parts, that it worked surprisingly well for me.

The prose wobbled between rich and florid. These long and lavish descriptions were mostly successful at capturing what they intended to capture, but they definitely get all worked up and fling themselves overboard at various points. I can say with 80% confidence that an outside source would agree with me on that assessment.

The theme of the book is that physical passion is an irresistible force that will mess you up no matter what you do with it. Sex sex sex, and there's nothing to be done about it, is the nature of the human condition.

Plotwise, we have a man in the early 1900s who advertises for a wife, and gets a woman with a past that she's hiding. He has lived a sterile, hyper-controlled life since his first marriage ended in tragedy, and he has suddenly decided that it's time to start fresh, with a new wife and an attempt to reach out to his estranged son.

He thinks about sex as much as an adolescent boy, which is why he lives in an iron vice of his own willpower. She has spent those same years doing all the things he's been thinking of, and is trying to hide that. They find some solace in each other. The plot is complicated by his long-lost son. We learn how each of them came to this place.

There's drama. There's a weird running theme about how people in Wisconsin tend to go crazy because of the long winters. As I'm writing about this, I think I'm talking myself into liking the book more than I initially did. And it's definitely not bad. It's just strange, very strange, and while I don't regret reading it, I'm not sure what to make of it.

Okay, having thought about it, I'd put my opinion this way: I think the author did an excellent job painting the internal landscapes of these people for me, but they are people who are motivated by things that I really don't quite comprehend. So even though he makes me understand, there's a level on which I can't really empathize deeply enough to love the book. That's what I thought of it.

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