The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff. Every week I like to check out the book reviews in People magazine. I never read the reviews. I like to see what books are getting talked about and how many stars the critics give them, but I never read the actual review. I am the kind of person who wants to know as little as possible going into a new book. Sometimes, I only read the first sentence on the back cover. I am that person who shushes you and plugs my ears while humming a li’l ditty the second you start talking about a movie I haven’t seen yet. So, for me, reviews of any sort are strictly off limits until I have finished the book or seen the movie.
About a month ago, I saw that People had given The 19th Wife four stars and it was their “Critics’ Choice”. So when I saw it on our New Arrivals shelf, I gave the back a glance. Two narratives being told simultaneously: one historical fiction, one a modern-day murder mystery. Meh….I can get behind most anything historical, but murder mysteries just are not my bag, baby. Then I read the part about Latter-day Saints, polygamy and how congruous this book was to current happenings (re: the FLDS church in Eldorado, Warren Jeffs trial in Utah). Typically, for no particular reason, I avoid things that are so topical they call themselves topical. So I put the book right back on the shelf. I had bigger fish to fry. I had just received a copy of Just Do It, a memoir about a couple who has sex for 101 days straight! Work was about to get a bit busier so I wanted something fairly light and humorous (and if that much sex doesn’t sound funny to you, I think you might be doing it wrong), and fundamentalists are nothing if not heavy killjoys.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I was forced to read this book. After I had put the book back, I resolved that I might get to it one day, eventually. However, a few days later, a representative from the Random House essentially strong-armed me into getting started RIGHT AWAY. If this ever happens to you, I strongly recommend listening to him/her, because when someone from the publisher says it is really good, it is REALLY good.
So, let me give you a Swank-approved synopsis, free of even the slightest spoiler. Here we have two stories: the first, of Ann Eliza, one of Brigham Young’s many wives and soon-to-be legal crusader against polygamy. The other, a modern murder mystery set in the same Utah backdrop. And finally, my review: while it took me a few chapters to get the hang of it, the structure of this novel is brilliant; interesting, unconventional and innovative without being obnoxious or pretentious. Ebershoff respectfully brings the historical characters to life, giving the 19th century woman a just voice. Not since Wally Lamb has a male author so accurately spoken for his female characters. He skillfully portrays the roles in plural marriage as well as the wide array of emotions felt toward the practice. His words are unoffensive and hold no agenda, but his historical research (memoirs, speeches, interviews etc.) does a masterful job of spotlighting the problems and criticisms the Latter-day Saints have faced since inception. And contrary to its physical mass, the book is never too weighty, but rather quick-paced and hard to put down. And contrary to its subject matter, it is full of great humor; the main character of the modern tale is completely lovable and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. The 19th Wife (Oh, yeah, and there is at least one Brigham Young sex scene. It put me off my lunch, but was apparently a draw for another BoPo.)
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