The plot starts when Ralph Truitt meets Catherine Land. He’s sent away for a mail-order bride, and she’s the one who responded. Truitt is irritated that Catherine’s train is late, and he’s irritated that she is not as she appeared (she’s much prettier, we’re told) but he tolerates all of this because of his deep, dark secret—he’s quite horny, and has always been horny, and has done a lot of sweet, sweet lovin’ in his youth.
Catherine has secrets too, lies beyond the first one (the picture). She’s got a dark past working as a prostitute, she has a lost sister, and Catherine also has a bad romance eating her up from the inside. Her intent, as she makes clear pretty early on, is to use a blue bottle she’s brought for nefarious purposes, to become Truitt’s widow in short order. But when an accident on the way to Truitt’s Wisconsin farmhouse knocks him unconscious, she instead decides to nurse him back to health with the assistance of Truitt’s long-suffering housekeeper Mrs. Larsen.
It’s not hard to see why this book is so popular; it’s melodramatic and it has a lot of sex. The descriptions are lush, even if they are often nothing more than long lists of things, for example, long lists of the flowers that Catherine wants to plant in her garden, or long lists of the kinds of fabric that the drapes are made of, or long lists of the kinds of people that came to the parties that Truitt’s first wife held. So much attention is devoted to describing luxury, especially sensual luxuries, that it reminded me of Anne Rice’s books. The characters’ almost universal obsession with living and dying tragically added to that.
One of the themes the author brings up and reiterates frequently is that in the long Wisconsin winter, people do crazy and horrible things without quite knowing why they do them. Fathers kill sons, daughters drown babies, people toss themselves into wells, cut off limbs, etc. (Another of those long lists of things). These things happen, the author says, as if with a shrug. Who knows why people do things? This theme somewhat excuses the frequently implausible actions of the main characters. Truitt knows what’s going on with Catherine and the poison, or says he does, but like a martyr, he just lets it happen. It’s hard for me to feel sympathy for a character who knows he’s being poisoned and just kind of thinks “okay, well, whatever.” Catherine continues forward with her plan even after she realizes she is happy with Truitt and doesn’t want him to die. Tony rejects the idea of finding a hobby other than snide debauchery, even when myriad opportunities present themselves. The characters don’t act like people who believe that they can choose the path of their own life, but like people who believe they have no choice except to accept the roles that fate (or the author) has proscribed for them, as if they were merely characters a novel. Which of course they are. This fatalism and passivity is a trait I’ve seen in other characters from early 20th century novels, usually women who were not bred to believe they had any choice in their life. I’ve also seen it in people in real life, usually somewhat dim people who consistently make stupid decisions and then lament at the bad luck that seems to follow them. It’s also the trait of characters in novels written by people who, instead of trying to understand their characters and build a plot based off the characters’ true motivations and desires, make up the plot first and shoe-horn in some people to fill the title roles after the fact, despite the fact that it caused his people to do some really odd implausible things. Passively accepting ones fate and doing stupid things without regard for their own feelings is not a trait I generally like in protagonists.
This book breaks the rules. One of the rules often handed down to new writers, often ad nauseum, is “show, don’t tell.” It’s not a hard and fast rule, you need both, but beginning authors often tell you everything and show you nothing, plot narration rather than evocative scenes. This book tells everything, shows almost nothing. If you read this book and feel like you’re reading 19th century literature, this is why. It’s light on dialogue, light on scenes. It flips point of view from person to person without rhyme or reason, sometimes within the same paragraph. That’s something else beginning authors are supposed to learn. I’m a person who knows the rules and knows the reason for them. I don’t like it when a paragraph starts out saying what Truitt wants and then halfway through tells us what Catherine’s secret thoughts and desires are. You could call it omniscient viewpoint, but I’d call it bad writing.
Another theme of the book is the winter. When the book begins, it’s fall 1907, and at the end of the book, it’s the beginning of spring 1908. Wisconsin is pretty darn cold, so let’s call that seven or eight months. First snow in October, river thaw in April? Is that right? We’ll call it May. I’ll be generous. In that amount of time, Catherine goes to Saint Louis twice, tracks down two different people there, spends some time with them, plans a garden, orders bare-root plants, plants them, and has them flower. That’s some amazing miracle grow to make a bare-root mail order plant bloom enough to fill a conservatory with flowers before the river thaws. In that period of time, Ralph Truitt gets injured and recovers, and becomes deathly ill and then recovers enough that they believe they can get away with not mentioning it. Tony buys a horse, buys a car (even though he doesn’t know how to drive) learns to drive, has an affair, and then ends the affair. Mrs. Larsen grows to like Catherine, adores Catherine, hates Catherine, and then adores Catherine again. This is all told as “and then they did this, and then they did that” as succinctly as possible, which is partly why it felt like the events taking place over years rather than over the space of 7 or 8 months.
No one acts like people I know in real life act. Generally, middle-aged people do not fall in and out of love over the space of weeks. Not saying it never happens, but it’s the exception, not the norm, especially when the love is the kind of companionable, middle-aged, he’s-not-hot-but-he’s-nice kind of love they’re describing here. This lack of verisimilitude would have been ameliorated if they’d had a little bit of dialogue, a few more real-time scenes. Don’t tell me Catherine is changing her mind about poisoning Truitt, show her hand pause on the eyedropper full of arsenic. Don’t tell me Mrs. Larsen is starting to hate Catherine, have Catherine’s meal show up with a gob of spit on it. Goolrick tells me over and over again how these people feel, how they act, but I didn’t believe any of it because I saw no evidence of how they felt and no reason for why they acted as they did. People do such things, he says. As in, people do crazy things for no good reason, which is why these characters don’t act in character.
It wasn’t until I started to write this review that I realized another book this novel really reminds me of: Wuthering Heights. Both novels involve unlikeable Catherines who are madly in love with wholly undeserving tempestuous bad boys and married to rather pathetic victims. Both novels eschew dialogue and showing rather than telling, and both novels have long-suffering housekeepers who seem to work 20 hour days so that the protagonists can spend their days quietly suffering in their own self-inflicted sorrow. Like the Heathcliff/Lindens, Catherine and Truitt and Tony seem determined to make themselves as miserable as possible through a combination of passivity, pointless malevolence, and bad judgment. Maybe this is what life was like back in the 1900s, and what I’m seeing is a portrait of what people were like in the days before pop psychology and self-awareness. But they didn’t feel that way. They felt like weak, implausible characters being forced to do what the author told them to do to act out an equally implausible melodrama.
In summary, it’s a good book to read if you like sex scenes and heaps of description. The tedious prose will make you feel like you’re reading 19th century literature. I found the characters insipid, the plot contrived, and the writing weak. I think 1.5 stars about sums it up. It’s a solid “meh.”