Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Review: The 19th Wife (2009)

According to author David Ebershoff's website for this novel, it's "sweeping and lyrical, spellbinding and unforgettable." I'm gonna call shenanigans on that, because while it was certainly entertaining and informative, it also could have used a bit more editing. If you've read it, I ask you -- what was the deal with the dolphins? I like my symbolism subtly delivered, like the fragrance of fall leaves, not hammered into me like the smell of my cat's litter box, thank you very much.

Rant aside, The 19th Wife is a pretty good read. I'm a sucker for mysteries, and the novel opens with two: who is Ann Eliza Young, and who killed whatsisface? Ebershoff presents two main parallel narratives: a straightforward modern-day whodunit with a gay protagonist (you go, girlfriend!), and a sometimes meandering ye olde America timeline that uses book excerpts, court depositions, newspaper clippings, and letters to tell the story of Ann Eliza Young's revolt against polygamy in the Mormon religion.

Let's talk about polygamy for a second. Here's a handy little bullet-point:

For Women
Pros: Sharing the household chores and bedroom duties
Cons: Sharing your husband with other women, infinite children, complete lack of gender equality

For Men
Pros: Infinite women
Cons: Infinite children

This is a controversial and outrage-inducing topic, and the novel is engaging because Ebershoff provides so much context for Ann Eliza Young's fierce campaign against polygamy for the sake of the neglected women and children. He vividly presents her family, personality, and detractors. At the same time, her legacy (or lack thereof in some parts of Utah) can be seen in Jordan's struggle in the modern day to find his father's true killer in an effort to free his mother (wife #19) from jail.

There are terrific thematic elements in this book, the most prominent being religion. Also, there are dogs. While the solution to the modern-day mystery had me rolling my eyes in exasperation, the novel's last line was absolutely brilliant. Huh, maybe it is "lyrical." Truth in advertising? Heavens!

Bottom line: Recommended reading.