On a cold fall afternoon in 1907 Wisconsin, successful middle-aged businessman Ralph Truitt awaits the woman he will marry, whom he has only met in letters. Catherine Land rides a train from Chicago, from a life that is simple and honest, as she tells Truitt in those letters, to meet the man 20 years her senior who sought a wife in a newspaper advertisement.
From this starting point, the “reliable wife” and the rich but long-alone businessman begin revealing more of their true selves, their desires and heartbreaks, to the reader. Catherine isn’t who she seems or claims to be, and it is unsure for some time exactly how much different she is than that “reliable wife.” Truitt, who lost his wife and family 20 years before, becomes more complex and haunted than just a stoic, grieving widower he initially seems to be. Small facts are meted out one by one as the layers of their histories and personalities are peeled back, the story advancing toward an end that begins to feel ever more ominous and inevitable.
Robert Goolrick’s writing becomes more and more compelling and impressive as the book unfolds: the characters seem to be one-dimensional but become much more complex; they may seem completely unsympathetic but evolve into more nuanced and more sympathetic people. His timing is impeccable, the story paced perfectly. His descriptions of places and people and inner lives are intricate, evocative and vivid, and the messages often profound. The novel could be seen as an examination of a difficult time and place, a period piece, or a somewhat gothic tale full of twists and turns. Mostly, however, it is by its end a moving story of what is, what could have been, and what might be.
Rated: Moderate, for just a few instances of mild language, but mostly for sexual content. There are sexual acts that are described in limited detail and others in more detail, but none overly descriptive. Mainly, it is the frequency and the characters’ constant obsession about sex that make this book a “moderate.”