Friday, December 12, 2008

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

I read a review of The 19th Wife somewhere (a link from Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books a while back), and it looked interesting. I thought it might be a unique title to add to our book club's theme of women this year, since polygamy is a very unusual experience of a few women. While I found this book intriguing enough that I had to keep reading, it was disturbing enough that at times I wished I hadn't. In my opinion, it has both strengths and a weaknesses which may incline the reader to either love it or tire of it, as I did by about 3/4 of the way through.

The author expertly blends various levels of the storyline, weaving historical accounts in several voices with a contemporary who-done-it and "research" papers that bring the past more to light in the present. All these diverse elements work very well to paint a picture of the effects of polygamy on the lives of men, women, children, and communities, both past and present.

I found a copy of Wife no.19, the memoir of Ann Eliza Young upon which the author drew the framework for the historical aspects of the novel, at a local university's library. I look forward to at least skimming parts of it to see how the stories compare. At times it was easy to forget that The 19th Wife is fiction - the historical accounts seem accurate and believable, and though the modern parts are incredible (in the sense that you can't, or don't want to believe things like this happen), they are at least plausible. The author has provided a very helpful explanation of his methods of fictionalizing the historical documents, as well as a decent bibliography, which is unusual for a novel.

I could have done without the modern protagonist's gay orientation. It seemed that element was added for the sake of political correctness rather than adding any depth or character development to the story. In all fairness, I suppose such a choice could be explained as a reaction to the polygamy Jordan observed and rejection he suffered at the hands of extremist Mormons, but still, it wasn't necessary. Readers who might be offended at face-value references to homosexuality might want to pass on this novel. There is also some language and content in the modern storyline that some might find offensive.

Like my friend commented on our book club's blog, there are no "crises of character that led to profound character development." In fact, all the major characters end up in about the same place they started; the modern characters don't have any inclination to change, and while there is more introspection and self-evaluation in the historical narrative, most of the individuals show a declining character rather than developing one. Aside from the fact that the murder mystery is solved, the lack of character development left me unsatisfied at the close of this novel.

I didn't find many quotable quotes, but here are a few (all refer to this fictionalized account, not historical documents):

"Having made it as far as Pittsburgh by the grace of a family traveling west, Elizabeth resorted to the sole possession of a young woman with an empty purse." (44) - from the story of Elizabeth Churchill, Ann Eliza Young's mother. This allusion fits with some discussion Captive Thoughts Book Club had about La Reine Margot.

"Sometimes when you're driving down a back road in Utah, you think if there is a God, then he probably had something to do with all this. It's just that...beautiful." (231) - Jordan Scott

"I trust you have seen the ocean...If I could count the hours I have spent staring out at it! And yet those hours never feel lost. I cannot imagine how else I could refill them were I given a second chance." (359) - in letter from Lorenzo Dee, son of Ann Eliza Young.

"My mother, we both know, wrote a truth in The 19th Wife - a truth that corresponded to her memory and desires. It is not the truth, certainly not. But a truth, yes." (363) - in a letter from Lorenzo Dee, son of Ann Eliza Young. Perhaps this declaration of postmodernism defines the book more than the author knew, and it might be why I found it lacking.

"Wife is an inadequate term...For lack of a more precise term, we label them all wives, but they are not all wives. Indeed some are my mates and mothers of my children. Yet others are more like affectionate aunts. Others are intellectual friends, with whom I can debate and discuss all matters. Others still are, indeed, the keepers of the house, the kitchen, the children. Others remind me, in their distance, or neighbors to whom one might wave across a wall. Others still are very old and retired in their rocking chairs...Only a few are like a wife in the common sense..." (444) - from Brigham Young's prison diary.

Sometime I might see if this young adult novel, Sister Wife, has more engaging characters on the subject of polygamy, but it's not at the top of my to-be-read list.


Carrie said...

AWESOME review! I too have been seeing this book pop up on Semicolon's Saturday Reviews (which is where I found you today!) and yours is the most balanced review I've read yet. I really appreciated it as it sounds like I would walk away with the same impression of the book as yourself.

Thanks for your thoughts!

Petunia said...

Great review. I reviewed this one recently myself and I can say I totally agree with your assessment.

And welcome to the blogosphere. I almost used this same background. I might still. :-)

Page Turner said...

Carrie - thanks for the kind words. I'd be interested to read your review if you do read this one someday.

Petunia - I think your review might have been the one that first acquainted me with this book. Thanks for the welcome!