Set in 1907 and taking place principally in the Wisconsin, the book begins with Ralph Truitt, a wealthy industrialist in his late 50s, awaiting the arrival of a train carrying Catherine Land. Ralph, long a widower, had advertised for a “reliable wife” and, having sorted through various offers, chose and corresponded with Catherine.
Ralph’s first surprise is that the woman on the train is not the woman in the photograph he had received. Catherine, we learn, induced a plain-looking friend to pose for the picture, fearing that Ralph would not otherwise choose the more attractive and sexually-charged Catherine. That surprise – that lie – sets the tone for the rest of the novel, in which lie builds upon lie. Catherine is no Midwestern innocent, the chaste spinster looking for a secure marriage to an older man. Although she threw away her gaudy party clothes and arrives in a plain black wool dress, she has sewn jewels into the dress as her “insurance,” and carries with her a little blue bottle of arsenic.
We soon find that Ralph’s first marriage, to an Italian countess he met as a young man sowing his oats in Europe, ended after he discovered her affair with her gardener (something of a cliché, I know). Ralph raised her bastard child, but took out his rage at his wife’s infidelity on her son, ultimately driving the boy away. Now, in late middle age, Ralph wants another wife to slake his raging libido – and, it transpires, to act as a liaison to the departed child, to induce him to return to Wisconsin and accept a place in Ralph’s family.
Catherine has secrets, too, revealed one at a time, and her own plans. To say more would be to spoil the story. Suffice it to say that all three main characters set their plans in motion, for their own ends. Love has little to do with any of those ends, though lust surely plays a large role.
As the Washington Post reviewer said, the book “isn't just hot, it’s in heat: a gothic tale of such smoldering desire it should be read in a cold shower. This is a bodice ripper of a hundred thousand pearly buttons, ripped off one at a time with agonizing restraint…. Poor Ralph has some awfully bad luck with women: the matrimonial equivalent of sailing to Europe on the Titanic and flying home on the Hindenburg.” But it’s not just a book about desire. It is also a book about guilt, and the attempt to assuage that guilt. It’s a book about choices, both good and bad. The sharply-drawn main characters prevent the story from remaining mired in the realm of pure melodrama, even if some things that transpire defy belief. The language, especially in the expositional passages, is often ripe and bloated. Although this serves to heighten the sense of the gothic, at times Goolrick gets carried away with himself, and the only thing to do is move on to the next paragraph, nothing to see here.
I did not find the ending to be entirely believable, given what had come before. Had I been in Goolrick’s shoes, I’m not sure what I would have done differently, however. Still, the book made for compelling reading, and its setting may be of interest to those in the neo-Victorian lands.