Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife

  • This summary of A Reliable Wife includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

A Reliable Wife Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick.

Robert Goolrick’s 2009 novel, A Reliable Wife, is a tense psycho-sexual drama that focuses on the deep passions that lurk inside seemingly average people. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, the novel explores an arranged marriage where no one is who they seem to be and where murder, betrayal, violence, and revenge lurk at the bottom of every character’s motivations. However, in untangling the truth behind the protagonists’ actions, the narrative takes a surprising turn towards forgiveness and mercy.

The novel opens in the winter of 1907 in rural Wisconsin, as wealthy fifty-four-year-old widower Ralph Truitt waits on a train platform for the woman with whom he has spent the summer corresponding and who has agreed to be his mail-order bride. In his advertisement, Ralph wrote about wanting a “reliable wife” and said that he was searching for a companion for convenient and “practical, not romantic reasons.” However, this is a lie – underneath his staid exterior, Ralph has enormous sexual needs and has led his life based on them.

His future bride, Catherine Land, gets off the train. She, too, is lying from the get-go. She is not the average-looking woman whose picture she sent with her letters. Instead, she is a beautiful prostitute who threw her fabulous party dresses out the window of the train before getting to town. Catherine and her younger sister, Alice, were orphaned at a young age, and Catherine became a prostitute to keep her sister from suffering the same fate. Now, to eventually support the two of them, Catherine is planning to suppress her naturally lively personality to mold herself into what she thinks Ralph wants. After that, she is set to marry him, slowly poison him with arsenic, and inherit his money.

Realizing that she is not the woman in the photographs he has seen, Ralph immediately accuses Catherine of lying. They take his carriage back to his house for the night; Ralph assumes that he will send her back the next day. However, on the way home, the horses spook and the carriage overturns, almost killing Ralph in the process. Catherine realizes that her best way into his good graces is to nurse him back to health – before killing him, that is.

As he recovers, Ralph tells her about himself and his life. He grew up with harsh parents and rebelled against their demands by descending into a life of debauchery as a young man, exploring every kind of physical pleasure. In the midst of these decadent years, Ralph met Emilia, a penniless Italian countess. She was using him for his money, but he fell in love with her. They married and had a daughter, but because Emilia never really loved Ralph, she had an affair with another man – a relationship that resulted in the birth of a son. Ralph found out, threw Emilia out of the house without any resources, and she died of tuberculosis and syphilis.

Ralph raised his daughter and Emilia’s son on his own. His daughter became intellectually disabled after a childhood illness and died very young. His stepson, Antonio, suffered the brunt of Ralph’s anger at Emilia’s betrayal – Ralph was violent and abusive to him until Antonio eventually ran away.

Catherine bears Ralph’s horrible story stoically, acting out the kind of forgiveness that Ralph is looking for. Eventually, they get married. Whatever lies they’ve been telling each other, their sexual connection is true and real.

A few months after the wedding, Ralph tells Catherine that his private detectives have finally found Antonio – he is a piano player in St. Louis who goes by Tony Moretti, his mother’s name. Ralph asks Catherine to find him in the city and bring him back. As soon as Catherine and Antonio are alone, they have a passionate tryst. Afterward, Catherine describes her plan to kill Truitt, a plan which Antonio heartily endorses. He urges her to use the poison faster, so they can share the inheritance sooner.

Catherine returns to Ralph, tells him that she couldn’t find Antonio, and starts to slip small amounts of arsenic into his food. The narrator reveals that Ralph is aware that she is poisoning him – but also that he is so despondent over never being able to reconcile with Antonio that he no longer wants to live. At the same time, Ralph realizes that he has fallen deeply in love with Catherine.

Catherine too is starting to develop deep feelings for Ralph. During this time, despite all of her efforts to prevent Alice from becoming a prostitute, it happens anyway. Alice dies in terrible suffering, and Catherine has a vision of an angel rejecting Alice as it happens. The vision is a turning point for Catherine, who realizes that she can’t go through with her plan to murder Ralph. Instead, she stops giving him poison and nurses him back to health once more.

She decides to try to make peace between Antonio and his stepfather. However, when Antonio comes to Wisconsin, he immediately starts wasting Ralph’s money while constantly provoking and arguing with Ralph. Antonio also pressures Catherine more and more into once again starting the plan to poison her husband. When she refuses for the last time, he starts to rape her to force her to do his bidding. Ralph interrupts the attack, and Antonio reveals that not only did he and Catherine have sex in St. Louis, she had been Antonio’s mistress and muse before she ever answered Ralph’s advertisement in the newspaper. What’s more, the whole plan to marry and poison Ralph came from Antonio, as revenge for the way Ralph treated Emilia and for the way he beat Antonio as a child.

Ralph and Antonio fight until Antonio runs out onto a lake where the ice is too thin, falls in, and drowns.

Saddened by the loss, Ralph, nevertheless, wants to continue being married to Catherine. He explains that he has always known about her connection to Antonio and that he doesn’t really care – he loves her so much that it doesn’t matter. Catherine reveals that she is pregnant and they walk back home. The novel ends with the suggestion that they will have a happy ending despite everything that has happened.