I just finished Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife.

This isn’t the kind of book that I usually read, especially considering that I read this review posted on Amazon by Elizabeth Eisenstatt “good consumer” before I read the book:

Hideous! Writing style? Overly dramatic, repetitive emphasis in practically every paragraph to the point of madness. Thanks, got the point you were making the first time, sighed the second and by the fifth? Would gladly throttle the author and the publisher in short order. Ironically, for all the awkward redundancy (see how I change the words up a bit?) there is barely any description of the surroundings, the characters, their actions. You are left with flat, one dimensional beings on a static stage with minimal props. The true hook for this book? The porn. This book is nothing short of a “bodice ripper.” Sadly, the author ruins even that.

And whereas I love bad movies, with books I’m rather particular (though about once a year, I do love a good “bodice-ripper”).

The truth is that I remember when or why this book made it on to my library queue or where I even heard of it. Experience would dictate that it was probably the New York Times book review, which—if you haven’t noticed from the source of my vocabu-cises—I read religiously. But I don’t see any evidence of a review there either. So the mystery continues…

However I happened upon A Reliable Wife, I read it and finished it, which is often 80% of the battle.

Yes, it’s a bit of a bodice-ripper, to the point that my little sheltered self was somewhat uncomfortable. But it’s not so sexual that I would put it squarely in the bodice-ripper category. (Can you tell that I love the phrase “bodice-ripper”?)

More importantly, it doesn’t quite fit into any of my four fiction categories:

  • Literary fiction: A good book. A book that’s going to be in print for a while and that will someday be written about in literary journals. A book that comments on the human condition (without the reader knowing that the author is commenting).
  • Oprah fiction: Thinks it’s literary fiction but either (a) trying way too hard to be deep—I’m talking to you, Audrey Niffenegger—or (b) is just not that good and will definitely be out of print once Oprah’s book club no longer has influence (sorry Jonathan Franzen, but I read The Corrections and you really do belong on this list).
  • Fiction: Entertainment, brain candy (e.g. pink books, thrillers, bad sci-fi, Dan Brown)
  • Fun fiction: Harlequin novels, anything that comes as part of a serialized set with an indefinite conclusion (e.g. my all-time faves, the Sweet Valley Twins)

A Reliable Wife falls into a strange category: Its premise is probably closest to Fiction (a mail-order bride in early 20th century Wisconsin—seriously?), but it’s really trying to get into Literary fiction, though it doesn’t quite make it. Yet, it also doesn’t have enough “substance” (yes, in quotes) to be added to Oprah’s list. The writing isn’t perfect, and it’s a bit heavy-handed, but Goolrick is working so hard! And despite my initial resistance, I read the whole thing, which is better than I can say for Eat, Pray, Love.

Beyond its problematic classification, what did I think of the book?

It’s a fast read with one or two good plot twists that were actually surprising. The problem with those plot twists, though, is that the narrator is so inconsistent: sometimes we know things and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the characters “know” things that irrevocably change their lives, but sometimes they “know” things and then change their minds.

So, Goolrick (great last name, right?), since I kind of like you, I’m going to give you some important advice that you’re obviously not getting from your editor. Here’s how to fix your next book:

  1. Stop repeating the same phrase over and over again. Yes, I get it that “such things happen.” Say it three times to make sure that the reader understands its significance, and then leave it alone. The crowd you’re writing for doesn’t need to be beaten over the head. (Shoot beyond Oprah!)
  2. Don’t do the DaVinci Code thing where the narrator and the characters know more than they’re telling us. That’s just not good writing. Instead, either make one character the narrator (so we know whatever she knows and nothing more), or give the omniscient narrator omniscience.
  3. Finally, and maybe this is just me, I hate when writers write from different characters’ points of view in the same chapter. I never know who’s thinking what and whether the original point of view just perceives the other character to be thinking something, or whether the other character actually is thinking it. (See? It’s confusing just describing it.)

In the end, if you come across A Reliable Wife on a rainy afternoon, go ahead and read it. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s not too full of itself. It wants to be understood, but it’s also not necessarily interested in making a major philosophical commentary on the nature of man (thank God). It’s no Toni Morrison, but it’s better than Jonathan Franzen, because at least it’s fun.

Keep writing, Goolrick—but try to write better next time.

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Note: In the Acknowledgments, Goolrick mentions the book Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy which begins with “The pictures you’re about to see are of people who were once actually alive.” AWESOME.

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