I learned about "A Reliable Wife" on "Turning Point", the book blog by Julie Brichta. Not long after having read her positive review, I ran across a used copy. I join Julie in lauding this novel by Robert Goolrick.
It's 1907, rural Wisconsin. Middle-aged and wealthy Ralph Truitt is waiting for the train to deliver his future wife, whom he "ordered like a pair of new boots" after placing an ad for a mail-order bride in a Chicago newspaper. After a disastrous first marriage, what Truitt wants now is a "reliable wife" - a plain-looking, simple, honest woman. When Catherine Land steps off the train, Truitt is shocked to see that she is very beautiful. And that she is not the same woman as the one in the photograph she has sent him. This is just one of the many deceits Ralph uncovers about Catherine. But a bargain is a bargain and together they set off across the frozen plains for his home.
What we don't know in this opening scenario that Catherine and Ralph both have hidden agendas, secrets, plans. We soon learn that Catherine has a shadowy history not suited to a reliable wife. One might call her a "black widow spider". At least that's what she wants to be. Catherine's plan is to become a wealthy widow by killing her husband with the poison she has brought with her. But "best-laid plans" are put aside temporarily when their carriage is involved in an accident and Ralph is injured.
Months later, it's time for Ralph's plan to be revealed. He wants to use his young wife as a lure to bring his estranged son back home. He asks Catherine to travel to St. Louis to effect the reconciliation. When Catherine meets Antonio, we realize that he, too, has a plan - a plan that intersects with Catherine's.
One of the marks of a good novel is that the characters evolve over time, and Catherine certainly does. She may not be as cold-blooded and heartless as she first appears, even though yes, she is slowly poisoning Ralph. And what to say about Ralph? He KNOWS Catherine is poisoning him but accepts it because he feels he "deserves it". I liked one description that I came across regarding Ralph and Catherine: that they are "two wounded hearts" that have come together. I think the book very satisfactorily answers the question, "Can a person find redemption?"
Catherine, Antonio and even Ralph may be looked upon as deplorable, flawed, cruel, perhaps even evil characters. But by showing us their terrible pasts, Goolrick reveals their motivations and gives us cause to feel sympathetic toward them (even Antonio).
I don't want to reveal more of the plot, except to say that there are many unexpected twists and turns. It is up to the reader to discover whose plan, whose agenda, whose scheme - if any - will win the day.