Robert Goolrick’s “A Reliable Wife,” a suspenseful and erotic novel of secrets and revenge, begins on a Wisconsin train station platform on a bitterly cold day in 1907. The cinematic scene sets the tone for the novel’s chillingly engrossing plot.
Widower Ralph Truitt, who advertised for “a reliable wife,” is crippled by the rage encased in his emotionally frozen heart. Catherine Land, the seemingly qualified bride he chooses from the dozens who respond to his newspaper marriage proposal, has the persona of Alfred Hitchcock’s icy blond muses. One can imagine the young Kim Novak or Tippi Hedrin as the perfect embodiment of her beautiful but frigid exterior.
But Catherine is neither reliable nor wifely material. She has her own ideas about happily ever after, and they don’t include Ralph. Early on, Goolrick reveals Catherine’s plan to dispose of him, but it’s not until halfway through the novel that we learn who she is and why she has the urge — and the shocking need — to kill.
Ralph, too, has ulterior motives and secrets. He’s hoping his new wife and the appearance of domesticity will persuade his estranged son, Tony, who ran away a decade before, to forgive his father for years of abuse and return home.
Through repetitive and rhythmically hypnotic prose, Goolrick drives home the characters’ loneliness, sexual yearnings, self-loathing and fear.
He infuses his novel with the inevitable notion that things will end badly for this damaged family. But he lets us discover for ourselves the breadth and magnitude of dysfunction and the deadly conspiracy in which Catherine and Ralph are, ironically, both complicit.
Like the closing revelations in Goolrick’s “The End of the World as We Know It,” his moving memoir about the tragic toll that alcoholism took on his family, the final scenes in this sad and suspenseful debut novel are riveting.