I finished David Ebershoff’s book, The 19th Wife, this weekend more relived to get on to my next book than happy with its resolution. Ebershoff’s writing is great and the topic FASCINATING to this lover of HBO’s series Big Love. The problem for me was not in the story, but in the stories. You see, there are two novels here and I got the feeling neither was particularly fully developed so Ebershoff decided to put them together rather cleverly and call it a day.
Let me explain. I keep sounding like quite the contrarian about some of the best loved and reviewed book s of 2009 (see my comments on Netherland), but I think I can make a solid case here for editorial revisions.
1. The story of Ann Eliza Webb Young is compelling enough to be fictionalized without any other ‘add-ons.’ I picked this book up to read about her– the infamous ’19th wife’ and I found the 2nd or ‘co-plot’ incredibly distracting and sort of in bad taste. More on that in #2. When Ebershoff is writing her story he’s at his best– no question. I was riveted.
2. The second plot line revolves around a young gay man, a ‘lost boy,’ kicked out of an LDS splinter group called ‘The Firsts.’ Jordan managed to survive being expelled from the community and dumped on the side of the road until early adulthood. He’s existing and still working to make sense of the terrible life he lead as the child of a plural marriage when his mother is arrested for the murder of his father at the First’s compound. Jordan goes to jail to see her and realizes she’s not guilty; he sets out to find the killer. This could be an equally compelling narrative but it just didn’t seem that developed. It was an add-on without enough flesh. I could see that Ebershoff’s intent is to weave the two stories of plural marriage together so readers can see the early foundations of the practice and its effects on family life and social culture since Brigham Young. My concern is that it’s just too convoluted and in the end they feel more like two separate stories than links in a chain.
3.Jordan’s homosexuality was a caricature and completely unnecessary to the plot of the book. Ebershoff is at his best with the historical characters. A stand-alone novel with Jordan as it’s center could have been really compelling but not necessarily in Ebershoff’s hands. The modern characters felt fake to me– each one over the top– from the homeless kid Jordan takes in to the new boyfriend, Tom. I was especially irritated by the character of the MA student researching Ann Eliza. Ebershoff’s Jordan keeps telling us SHE gets him, but it seems he’s trying to reassure the reader about this and he does not let the development of their relationship demonstrate this.
All of this said, the book is absolutely worth reading because the topic is fascinating and the writing can be excellent. I couldn’t stop reading it even when Jordan’s story drove me crazy. You’ve got to give an author credit for work like this. It kept me thinking and writing and that’s the mark of a an interesting book.