Spouse-shopping with A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

There’s something a little intoxicating about the idea of purchasing a spouse. Hear me out.

NOTE TO THE DUBIOUS: I’m not referring to situations in which women (or men) are extracted from poverty and despair to serve as sex slaves and household help.

Imagine a store in which potential spouses line the aisle along with lists of attributes.

This is Alberto. He loves to cook and vacuum, but cannot ever miss a Chicago Bears game. He’s happy to have sex just once a week. Likes sardines on his pizza. Terrible gift-giver, but talented masseuse. Loves old movies and reading books about the mob. Cost: $20,000 signing bonus, $400 monthly shopping stipend, room and board.


This is Wayne. He can fix anything and works as a contractor, but he will only go to the grocery when he needs beer nuts. Hobbies include attending monster truck rallies and fishing. Gets drunk on Bud Light no more than twice a month. Will be bald in a year or two, but has a nice-shaped skull. Loves women with a little extra padding, and likes to host backyard barbecues. Doesn’t mind folding laundry. Cost: $500 nonrefundable deposit, a new truck every three years, home-cooked dinner three times a week.

It would be sort of a business deal with benefits, right? And who knows? You might grow to love each other if you choose carefully.

In the excelllent book A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick takes on the notion that marriages can be made with such practicality, and in doing so creates a riveting mystery that leaves readers questioning whether love, even untended, can bloom and evolve – and more disturbingly, whether people can change.

The story takes place in the early part of the 1900s in rural Wisconsin. This fact gave me flashbacks to my three freezing years in Minnesota, and I shivered sympathetically through most of the book. Main character Ralph Truitt has amassed a great fortune from his ownership of the region’s iron mines. In his younger years, he had a beautiful wife and children; now, at age 54, he has nothing aside from the money and the lavish trappings that money has brought. He is a sad and lonely man.


The woman he chooses describes herself as a simple honest woman who has spent her life as a missionary. “I know that it isn’t love you are offering, nor would I seek that, but a home, and I will take what you give because it is all that I want,” she writes in her letter to him. She bills herself, in short, as reliable.

Of course, she’s anything but reliable. From the moment we encounter her, as she strips off her elegant dress and dons a plain frock just before she meets him, we know that her motives aren’t pure. Yet we don’t understand exactly what she wants.

Soon enough, we find out. Goolrick cleverly alternates his perspective as he writes so that readers can delve into the motives and thoughts of all three of the book’s main characters. His writing is detailed, yet simple and sparse: In his fever, the women came to him. They lifted his trembling body from the twisted sheets and lowered him into a tepid bath, still in his nightshirt. His eyes rolled wildly; his breaths came in gulping bursts.

And this: “She wanted the laughter and the dirty jokes and the bawdy songs and the sex with men she never saw again, the clink of money in her silk purse, the thrill of champagne, the cloying sweetness after the bubbles were gone, the awful mouth in the morning, opium and champagne, the nights upstairs with the women, in their silk-ribboned underwear.”

Oh, yes, there’s sex in this book. Lots of it. Some of it pretty awesome, while on opium. Yummy! I mean, I wasn’t on opium. But still, can you imagine?

Here’s what this book isn’t: funny. So don’t read this if you just put your cat to sleep and think you might get laid off tomorrow. There’s nary a paragraph that provokes even a smile. It’s a serious drama that pulls at the heartstrings, though, with enough twists and turns to keep a good reader up at night.

I’m glad I don’t (currently) need a Spouse Store.

This is Hot Firefighter Husband. He’s obsessed with the Boston Red Sox, clean floors, and watching Hardball with Chris Matthews. Doesn’t mind cleaning bathrooms, but can’t load a dishwasher worth a shit. Somewhat flexible on sex schedule. Works out hard, has awesome upper body muscles; his feet aren’t as gross as most. Not particularly handy. Great at helping kids with homework. Cost: currently under contract.

But if you’re in the market for a companion, read A Reliable Wife before you start making offers. And for the love of Zeus, be sure to check the warranty.

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