What's very interesting to me, in book club we can look at a piece of fiction that works and recognize that the author broke the rules but we loved the book anyway. When the writing doesn't work, we can usually turn to the rules to explain why the piece didn't work. It's far harder to say why a piece, especially a piece that breaks the rules, does work.
Though A Reliable Wife was a NY Times bestseller and got rave reviews, as a reader I didn't enjoy it. It was a bizarre and lonely book. Characters did things that were beyond explanation, like chopping off their own arm because they wanted to have sex with their wife more often than she wanted. Or, as in the case of the main character, Ralph admitting to his wife Catherine that he knows she's poisoning him with arsenic. He will talk about it this once and then never again. He assures her it's ok with him. As I said, bizarre, and not quite believable, but not quite out there far enough to get me to go for the ride.
Aside from not buying certain plot decisions, there were writing rules Goolrick broke that didn't work. The first and most important one is show vs tell. Some writers think that show means scene and tell means narrative. Showing is more a matter of creating the means for the reader to fall into the story in that way you do when you're reading and the outside world disappears. Showing, according to Janet Burroway, is in the details. Her suggestion: sensory details. Paint with the right detail, activate the reader's senses and they will follow you anywhere.
Goolrick's story is told mainly in narrative. Narrative can show just as much as scene with the right details and the right voice. There are several viewpoints in the book, none of which are strong enough in voice to make me forget I'm reading. So the narrative comes across as a telling not showing.
It opens badly. Breaks all the rules of a good hook. The main character is waiting. A train is coming, but it's late and he's on the platform in front of the whole town, shamed and humiliated yet again. It's only when the narrative switches to Catherine's point of view while riding on the train does the story begin. She is also doing next to nothing; she is rocking along in the plushly decorated train car Ralph has sent for her. But then she changes out of her velvet and brocade into plain, drab clothes. She removes her jewelery and sews it into the hem of the spartan dress. She tosses the fancy clothes out the window. There's one line that refers to larceny and the story is born. Now this is interesting.
There's also one flaw that spoiled the book for me, continuity freak that I am. Before we know that Catherine knows Ralph's son, Anthony, and before we know that Catherine and Anthony are in this scheme together, there is an internal monologue of Catherine fretting over the new information about a son. She can't go through with her plan if the son comes. She won't inherit all the money if there's a son in the picture. Then when Ralph dispatches her to St. Louis to bring back his son, we find out that he's the lover she's been thinking about all along. Betrayal! I wanted to close the book right then. The writer led me to believe something that wasn't true.
What really bothered me is that it would have been such an easy fix. Don't put it in monologue so we're not inside her head. She could react as if the news were a bomb to her plans thus making me think she didn't know Anthony. Goolrick could have been served by creating one of those moments where the reader knows more, or thinks she knows more, about what's going on than the characters do. Or, leave it out altogether. I thought I read it wrong and went back to see if I misinterpreted. After consulting the group we agreed, we didn't misinterpret. The wriitng led us astray and broke our trust.
A Reliable Wife is rich in theme and bizarre enough that it stands out from the crowd. I didn't really enjoy it. Let me know what you think.