I was browsing through the airport book store before my last trip and my eyes landed upon A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. Maybe I liked the title because I think of myself as a pretty reliable wife. I am, not, however anything like the reliable wife featured in this story.
In the early 1900s, Ralph Truitt, a successful but lonely businessman, posts an advertisement in a St. Louis paper looking for a wife. He says he’s looking for a reliable, honest woman to be his wife. He has ulterior, but not devious motives. Catherine Land, a woman with a dangerous past, responds to his advertisement. She is driven by both money and love. Unfortunately for Ralph, her love is not for him. And her motives are anything but pure. She plans to slowly poison and kill him so she can take his money.
Catherine makes her way to Wisconsin and earns the trust of her fiancé and eventually becomes his wife on the one condition that she searches for his runaway son. Ralph carries significant guilt around his relationship with his son and employs Catherine to help reunite him with his son. Catherine takes the assignment, even though reconnecting Ralph with his son will spoil her plan to inherit Ralph’s wealth upon his death. Her discovery of Ralph’s son, Antonio, and his return home dominate the second half of the book and create twist and turns.
On the surface, the three main characters in this novel seem vastly different but as the story unfolds you’ll find more similarities in common among them. There are prominent themes of loneliness, missed expectations between parents and their children, and unending quests for love. While Ralph shares his entire life story with Catherine exactly once (he doesn’t want to speak of it again), he opens himself up to her and she begins to love him. He shares his story of a reckless youth spent trying to avoid responsibility and his judgmental mother. She, however, does not open up to Ralph. She has an equally shady past fraught with dangerous sexual relationships, drugs, and family issues. It is almost as if she doesn’t feel worthy to share her secrets and seek forgiveness.
While Catherine is poisoning Ralph, he recognizes what is happening to him yet he chooses not to stop her. His body is literally deteriorating daily at the hands of his wife, yet he is pledging his love to her. At the same time Catherine is poisoning Ralph, she is carrying for him as his nurse. She is literally washing his body and trying to soothe his discomfort when the cause of his discomfort is in her hands. It is an interesting dichotomy; she nurses him tenderly to try to compensate for the destruction she is causing. Eventually, she realizes that she cannot continue this duality and pledges to stop poisoning him and return him to health. This change coincides with the return of Ralph’s son, Antonio.
Antonio is a selfish, pompous character fixated on repaying his father for what Antonio perceives to be extreme cruelness. The story is further complicated by the fact that Antonio’s mother and Ralph’s first wife was not honest and left the family. Ralph and Antonio both harbor guilt around what could have been. Antonio’s return home does not play itself out as Antonio thought it would. He spins into a cycle of depression and anger; he is unable to accept his father’s love. He allows rage to take over his reasoning.
I won’t share the full story here; you’ll need to dig into A Reliable Wife and read the story for yourself. Suffice to say, you’ll be taken in by the characters, their flaws, and their desires.
As a reader, your heart will harden to both Catherine and Ralph’s characters at the beginning of the story. Ralph is harsh, gruff, and sterile. Catherine is plotting to carry out a sinister death to her to-be husband and is open to the reader with her plans and deceit. As the story progresses, however, and you hear their life stories, your heart will open up. You’ll come to sympathize with their plights in life and want their marriage to work and form into love. Moreover, the reader will want Catherine to be honest with Ralph….to appreciate his love for her and realize that he might be able to accept her for who she was and who she has become as his wife.
The author has artfully woven the art of gardening throughout the story. As the story concludes, you’ll come to recognize the deep symbolism of plants, flowers, growth and rebirth evident in Catherine’s garden. The garden is not just her escape from her situation, rather it is the setting for her realization of her own worth and place in life.
As the story runs its course, themes emerge around how life happens and how people can adapt and forgive. Antonio, ultimately, cannot forgive but you’ll be surprised by the depth of forgiveness that Catherine and Ralph can have for him, and for each other.