Friday, May 7, 2010

Review: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

One of my book clubs chose this book for last month. I was less than enthusiastic. I could list out all the reasons why it didn't appeal to me when it was being presented but the two biggies were that polygamy doesn't trip my trigger and the fact that the modern day parallel story line has at its center a plural wife who is accused of murdering her husband, well you've pretty much hit it out of the ballpark in terms of not interesting me in spending my reading time with the book. But I have always been the teacher's pet and that translates in adult life to me being a dutiful bookclub member. So I read the book. And it wasn't as brutal an experience as I'd thought. Don't get me wrong, I still have less than zero interest in books that contain murders and/or polygamy, but I am not sorry I read this one.

Ann Eliza Young was Brigham Young's 19th wife. Well, she was publicly known as his 19th wife. History is not clear on how many wives he actually had over his adult lifetime. But Ann Eliza was not happy as a plural wife and she ultimately sued for a divorce, crusading to end the practice of polygamy in the United States. A fictionalized history of her life makes up a good portion of this book. The other portion is a parallel story of modern day polygamists, the First Latter Day Saints, who broke away from the Mormon church over the issue of polygamy. In this second story, modern day 19th wife BeckyLyn has been accused of killing her husband. The case seems particularly cut and dried as he was online chatting when he was murdered and had mentioned that wife #19 had just walked into the room. Several states away, Jordan, BeckyLyn's long estranged son, sees the news clipping about the murder and knows he has to go and try to exonerate his mother despite the fact that she allowed the FLDS Prophet to kick Jordan out of the group and her life. Interspersed with Jordan's investigation, which he is uniquely suited to undertake, having been a former insider in this very secretive and closed society, is the story of Ann Eliza's determination to see polygamy criminalized.

The two stories obviously have something in common but they rub up against each other a tad less than comfortably. The historical sections are told in fictionalized documents, a wikipedia article, letters, and a graduate student's research. Because of this method of storytelling, there are more repetitions than necessary and it can be hard to read yet another account of the same span of time in Ann Eliza's life. Certainly a well rounded telling, complete with differing perspectives is a positive but there's just a bit of an excess here. The modern day story, while interesting, failed to hold my interest as much as the historical. In this, my opinion was counter to almost everyone else in the book group. They all far prefered Jordan's investigative quest. To me, however, this quest was unlikely and I'm not sure I ever understood Jordan's motivation for undertaking it. My interest in it was probably also colored by the fact that I thought this fictional man (Jordan's father and husband to a harem) was reprehensible and BeckyLyn was a dishrag or doormat. Perhaps it's a failure in imagination on my part but I had trouble mustering up interest in such lackluster characters and didn't much care to find out who the real murderer was.

I've made it sound as if I didn't like it at all, didn't I? That is certainly not true though. I found the history of the Mormon church fascinating, even if I find it less than credible personally. The idea to marry historical polygamy to the reality of latter day splinter sects, making sure the reader knows that this abhorent practice has not been stamped out, was theoretically a good one. I would have liked to see more of a connection between the stories though. A character driven story when discussing Ann Eliza's life, the book takes on a completely different tone, that of a plot driven murder mystery in the modern day Jordan sections. Definitely a novel cleft in two, this a long book that has an equal chance of appealing to historical fiction readers and mystery readers as well. But take note that it also has equal chance of alienating each group as well with its dichotomous rendering. As I said above, I'm not sorry I read it and I will be curious to see what Ebershoff does with a shorter, more straightforward story since I have long had his previous novel on my shelves.


  1. I am a procrastinator when it comes to chunky books, but I do want to read this one. Thanks so much for you great and honest review Kristen (as always).

  2. I can't say this is a book that calls out "read me, read me" to me either.

  3. Great review. It actually inspires me to seek this book out. Thanks. I really enjoy reading what you have to say.

  4. I have been curious about this book for a while, but not sure if I'll get to it. Thanks for the honest review.

  5. I can't say that I would read this book but your review did make it look more appealing than the original jacket. I am a good teacher's pet too--I read a lot of books because they are in my book club and not necessarily my reading tastes!

  6. I received this one a few months back and feel guilty that I haven't read it yet.

  7. I wasn't too impressed either Kristin, I don't like my history lessons forcefed and they did get monotonous. And having not really enjoyed being married myself, can't even imagine being one of 19 :)

  8. I didn't like this book at all. If it had just been Ann Eliza, I thought it would have been great, but the modern stuff was too jarring.

    I did, however, like your review. So that's something. :)

  9. Overall, I liked this book, but I found Ann Eliza's story more interesting than Jordan's. And like you, I find myself giving in to reading books for book club that I really don't care to. Usually I'm glad I gave them a chance, though.

    Diary of an Eccentric


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