Set in what is commonly perceived as a simpler time, A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick's debut novel, follows the lives of two very misguided and confused people trying to find love and comfort during the industrial revolution. Ralph Truitt is a rich and powerful man who has inherited a vast fortune from his father's railroad empire, yet in gaining this success he had to leave behind a life of excess, debauchery, and frivolity. As a solution to the loneliness of a failed marriage and the death of his young daughter, Ralph decides to post a personal ad in the surrounding cities to find a suitable wife. In response, Catherine Land sees this as her opportunity to a life she has never been afforded. Raised on the streets and caring for her younger sister, Catherine turned to prostitution and drugs to provide the basic necessities of life to her sister.
However, as the novel progresses the reader quickly learns that the experiences of these two characters have grossly misled them to believing that sex equals love. So, while Truitt is uncertain about Catherine in the beginning of the story, he accepts a love for her that is merely based on their close proximity to one another. Additionally, Catherine feels Truitt is a means to an end. She has desperately hoped for a meaningful and loving relationship, but Truitt will do as long as he is as rich as he claims.
It becomes quite apparent to the reader that even as sex is a dominating factor of this story, almost having the presence of another character, its not-so-subtle interjection into every thought and feeling can only be described as truly depressing. Deluded into believing that just the physical contact of a person, any person, constitutes love, all of the major characters are overwhelmed with deep-seated psychological issues. The only two people in the tale who don't appear to be all-consumed with sex are the servants that Truitt employs, who seem to be the only people actually in a relatively normal relationship. But, even that is short lived when the husband goes crazy and cuts off his own hand.
There are few redeeming qualities to these main characters. Even as their sad stories are revealed, their obsessions and absorptions with sex ultimately distracts from much of the sympathy a reader may feel towards them. To be sure, they all live in a superficial world where sex and objects seem to provide true happiness. However, the story could have been much more powerful had the sex scenes not been so prevalent. Extremely well-written to begin with, the integrity and message of A Reliable Wife would have remained intact, if not become more powerful, minus the lurid details.