Review: The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls

29 Jun

I feel like I should start this review with a disclaimer. But it’s not really a disclaimer since it’s really part of my review. I read this book a solid month and a half ago, and have since read 12 books in that month and a half. My memory of this book is hazy (Note to self: review books right after reading them), but in a lot of ways, my haziness is reflective of my general feelings of the book as well. But I’ll get to that.

Despite the popularity of plural marriages and polygamy as a pop culture fascination right now, Amy Stolls’ novel The Ninth Wife is not about a man married to nine women at the same time. Instead it asks the question, “What would you do if you found out the man you love has been married eight times before? And he’s just asked you to become number nine?”

It’s a wholly unique supposition for a novel, and when I initially read the blurbs about it, I admit I was really intrigued. Because you can’t help but ask yourself, What would I do?? Considering I haven’t been married even once, I also wondered if Bess Gray, Stolls’ protagonist, was going to be a character I would be able to relate to.  For better or worse, she absolutely was. Bess is 35, single, living in DC, dating mostly unsuccessfully, and trying desperate things to meet men, like throwing Singles’ Parties, where everyone brings someone else that it is single too. (As much as I tried not to get all neurotic about books I’m reading, I definitely set this down a few times and went, holy crap, that could be me in seven years! Quick, someone set me up on a blind date! Moving on…). I really liked Bess. Despite all her insecurities, she’s a really good person and the cast of characters that surrounds her are feisty and unique as well. And everyone it seems has as much backstory as she does (sometimes more) which is a refreshing change from a lot women’s fiction, wherein only the main character has any depth. Each one of the characters in this – Bess’ grandparents especially – have stories that could be the basis for their own novels. They all seem to have secrets and lives and rationales that we as readers (and Bess as an element in their lives) don’t always get to be privy to. Stolls does this revealing of information quite well and manages to build suspense even just in each character study.

While the characterizations were a high point for me, the framework and plot structure were problematic. The initial prompts for this book – the back cover and the publisher’s site – state: “Bess Gray has just learned that the man she loves, the man who asked for her hand in marriage, has been married eight times before.” But structurally, this isn’t entirely true. Part I takes up the first almost-half of the book and it alternates chapters between being told from Bess’ point of view and from what we come to find out is Rory’s point of view. Rory is the important crux of the story – he is the once-husband of these previous eight wives. In Bess’ chapters, we find out her backstory, how she meets Rory, and how they fall in love. Rory’s chapters are him telling the story of each of his previous wives. Alternating these chapters worked for me; its not always a successful tactic and in some cases, it becomes distracting as a reader because you’re just waiting to be returned to the chapters you care about, but I enjoyed it in this case. It was tempting in some places to jump ahead to Rory’s chapters because his voice is really wonderful, but I refrained. The flow and pattern made sense.But Bess doesn’t find out until the end of Part I, over 200 pages into the book, that Rory has been married eight times already. She finds out well after we, the reader, find out that her story is not what she thinks it is.

As Stolls moves into Part II, I found myself longing for those flip-flopping chapters. Because the structure shifted completely – no more alternating narratives – I was thrown off, and it felt like a completely different book. I understand the point of Part I and Part II, but it was too drastic in structural shift and I had a hard time readjusting to the new point of the story. Because in Part II the book does move in an entirely different direction. Bess goes on a roadtrip with her grandparents, who have a complicated marriage of their own, accompanied by her gay friend Cricket, to move her grandparents to Arizona where they will retire. Along the way, Bess decides to find and question each of Rory’s wives to answer that question, Do I really want to be someone’s ninth wife?

In a lot of ways, this book is a gem: the characters are multi-layered, the premise is unique, the initial structure creates suspense, the writing is smart and accessible. On top of that, the larger picture of the story once you’ve closed the book is an honest one of family and marriage and love, and it was a realistic view on what it takes to sustain a partnership beyond the initial honeymoon phase of falling in love. So many novels – especially those targeted toward women readers – either lead up to a marriage (happily ever after is practically a disease) or chronicle the dissolution of a marriage. In the grand scheme of things, Stolls’ novel illustrates that real marriage and real love take more work than that, and that it doesn’t always look like we think it’s supposed to, but that doesn’t mean it’s any more or less valid or any more or less functional.

I realized just now that I used a lot of “forest for the trees” language in that last paragraph (“The larger picture…,” “In the grand scheme…”). Telling, since a lot of the details were problematic for me. As I said, the shift in structure from Parts I to II threw me off. Also, the plausibility of some of the situations Bess finds herself in, in Part II, were slightly eye-roll inducing. So while I got the point at the end, and I was engaged and entertained in the progression of the novel, the problems I had with the book overshadowed my enjoyment in my remembering of it. I was frowny-facing it when I sat down to write this review initially, because I wasn’t overzealous in any one direction. It’s also probably why it took me a month and a half.

So, the short answer?

I liked this. It’s worth reading, especially since it’s a paperback original – I don’t know that I would spend the money for a hardcover – and the story and characters are great partners in getting to the final conclusion, but maybe try to see this as forest, rather than trees.

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