"Country businessman seeks reliable wife. Compelled by practical not romantic reasons. . . . Discreet." Sounds innocent enough, especially in 1907, when classified ads for mail-order brides still appeared routinely in newspapers. But the "country businessman," Ralph Truitt, 58, seeks more than that, and so does the reliable wife who steps off the train during a Wisconsin winter morning "cold enough to sear the skin from your bones." Inspired by Wisconsin Death Trip, a 1973 book of news accounts and photographs from 1890 to 1910 documenting mental illness, disease, death and other misery in and around Black River Falls, Wis., A Reliable Wife constitutes a Gothic tale full of sex, conspiracy, betrayal and even love. The characters, according to the author, inhabit a place where "the winters were long, and tragedy and madness rose in the pristine air." Infected by loneliness and isolation, the characters readily succumb to dark urges for connection of one sort or another.
After 20 years of unsated desire, Truitt finds himself burning with desire despite his stated commitment to the "practical" aspects of having a wife. And Catherine Land, who answers his ad, has an unstated agenda of her own, with jewels sewn into the hem of her plain black dress, a bottle of arsenic in her luggage, and "a long and complicated scheme" in her head. "This begins in a lie," Truitt tells her as he picks up her bags. "Whatever else, you're a liar." He has no idea how true his statement is. But the author unleashes his own cascade of deceptions on the reader, endowing the novel with a sprawling, epic grandeur driven by narrative intensity that sometimes verges on purple prose. ("Love that lived beyond passion was ephemeral," he writes. "It was the gauze bandage that wrapped the wounds of your heart.") A Reliable Wife careens from one unexpected plot twist to another as the characters pursue their dark and often wicked intentions. But author Robert Goolrick complicates the plot with another motive, which he described in one interview as a desire "to write a novel about lives that yearn for goodness the way plants bend toward the light." In the end, despite their hidden and often malevolent motives, these people emerge as complex and surprisingly human as they struggle for that perennial goal: happiness.
Well known for its cheese, Wisconsin has emerged in recent years as a haven for craft breweries, so why not discuss A Reliable Wife over a tasty dip that blends beer and cheese into a rich, satisfying concoction? Served with pretzel rods or thin crackers, this beer dip will conjure a Wisconsin far brighter and happier than the one that provides the background for the novel.
A cheese dip from the supermarket will do the trick in a pinch, and you might even find one of Wisconsin's craft beers among the abundant selections offered by more ambitious liquor stores.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings.