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Book Clubbing


A Reliable Wife 
by Robert Goolrick



Robert Goolrick

Author Reading

About the Book

This was the book I used for the very first book group I ran, and it still remains a favorite.  It is dark and gothic, with a compelling narrative that does not take the expected route.  Ralph Truitt, a captain of industry in rural Wisconsin in 1909 advertises for a simple, honest woman to join him as his “reliable wife”.  Catherine, the woman who answers his ad is not as simple and honest as she portrays herself. Beautiful, with a shady past, she has her own agenda—she plans to poison him and leave Wisconsin a rich widow.  What happens as the story unfolds is far from expected, and the bleak Midwestern winter landscape provides the perfect backdrop for a story steeped in lust, greed, and twisted notions of what it means to love.  You WILL take a side and you might be surprised by which side you find yourself on.

About the Author

Robert Goolrick spent many years in advertising.  After being fired in his early fifties, he decided to pursue his first love—telling stories.  A Reliable Wife was his first novel, but I heartily recommend his memoir, The End of the World As We Know It. 

Discussion Questions

  1. The novel’s setting and strong sense of place seem to echo its mood and themes. What role does the wintry Wisconsin landscape play? And the very different, opulent setting of St. Louis?
  2. Ralph and Catherine’s story frequently pauses to give brief, often horrific glimpses into the lives of others. Ralph remarks on the violence that surrounds them in Wisconsin, saying, “They hate their lives. They start to hate each other. They lose their minds, wanting things they can’t have” (page 205). How do these vignettes of madness and violence contribute to the novel’s themes?
  3. Catherine imagines herself as an actress playing a series of roles, the one of Ralph’s wife being the starring role of a lifetime. Where in the novel might you see a glimpse of the real Catherine Land? Do you feel that you ever get to know this woman, or is she always hidden behind a facade?
  4. The encounter between Catherine and her sister, Alice, is one of the pivotal moments of the novel. How do you view these two women after reading the story of their origins? Why do the two sisters wind up on such different paths? Why does Catherine ultimately lose hope in Alice’s redemption?
  5. The idea of escape runs throughout the novel. Ralph thinks, “Some things you escape.... You don’t escape the things, mostly bad, that just happen to you” (pages 5–6). What circumstances trap characters permanently? How do characters attempt to escape their circumstances? When, if ever, do they succeed? How does the bird imagery that runs through the book relate to the idea of imprisonment and escape?
  6. “You can live with hopelessness for only so long before you are, in fact, hopeless,” reflects Ralph (page 8). Which characters here are truly hopeless? Alice? Antonio? Ralph himself? Do you see any glimmers of hope in the story?
  7. Why, in your opinion, does Ralph allow himself to be gradually poisoned, even after he’s aware of what’s happening to him? What does this decision say about his character?
  8. Why does Catherine become obsessed with nurturing and reviving the “secret garden” of Ralph’s mansion? What insights does this preoccupation reveal about Catherine’s character?
  9. Does Catherine live up in any way to the advertisement Ralph places in the newspaper (page 20)? Why or why not?
  10. Did you have sympathy for any of the characters? Did this change as time went on?
  11. At the onset of A Reliable Wife the characters are not good people. They have done bad things and have lived thoughtlessly. In the end how do they find hope?
  12. The author directly or indirectly references several classic novels—by the Brontë sisters, Daphne du Maurier, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, among others. How does A Reliable Wife play with the conventions of these classic Gothic novels? Does the book seem more shocking or provocative as a result?