The 19th Wife was a worldwide bestseller, and like all bestsellers it had its good and bad points.
On the plus side it begins well, with an engaging theme: what it’s like to be one of numerous wives in a polygamous marriage which is justified by religious belief. It’s a pastiche so it’s written from the POV of two women: Ann-Eliza Young in the 19th century; and the other, BeckyLyn Scott, the mother of Jordan, a young gay who was evicted from her fundamentalist sect but has to re-enter its world because she’s been unjustly charged with murder. The 19th century narratives are supplemented by newspaper reports and the narrative of Brigham Young (the ‘Prophet’) while the 21st century narrative is supplemented by that of a PhD student researching Ann Eliza Young’s life and by a fake Wikipedia entry.
Of the two main narratives, I much preferred Jordan’s. I never really felt that Ebershoff had captured the female voice very well, whereas Jordan’s seemed the authentic voice of a 21st century male. He had jaundiced attitudes towards authority but an open attitude towards alternative lifestyles; he was forgiving and generous. I particularly admired Ebershoff’s skill in depicting the way this character’s dialogue varied in different contexts: respectful but wary of his mother (whose persisting faith he found alienating); superficially polite towards her lawyer; carefully antagonistic towards sect-members; and pseudo-flirtatious with a female fellow-evictee from the sect bizarrely called ‘5’. The tender banter between himself and his lover and the teenage runaway Johnny is really well done and often very amusing.
However, what is supposed to drive this book along is the who-really-dunnit, but it gets lost in amongst all the stuff about polygamy, plural wives, and the effect of these sects on the children. Although he explores all this at length (far too much length IMO, 598 pages) Ebershoff seems more interested in the blurred identity of these children than he is in the lives of the women. The narrative of Ann Eliza Young is based on an authentic document which exposed Mormon polygamy and brought about its prohibition in the US, but (as you’d expect with a narrative of that period) there is reticence about telling all even though the narrator repeatedly purports to do so.
While I never really lost interest in Jordan’s story, it was the story of the new and optimistic life that he had made for himself which engaged me, not the murder mystery, and I became really tired of Eliza’s narrative. Some points are laboured, especially the women’s belief that submitting to polygamy was the only way to get to heaven, and the ease with which Jordan was able to come and go within the sect didn’t seem credible at all, not from what I’ve read about them in the media. By about half way through the book I was a bit fed up and probably wouldn’t have finished it if I’d had much else to read while overseas.
The New York Times reviewed this book back in 2008.
Author: David Ebershoff
Title: The 19th Wife
Publisher: Black Swan 2009
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $24.95 AUD