In Want of a Wife
Taciturn rancher Morgan Longstreet advertised for a bride in the papers back East, and Jane Middlebourne, eager to escape her wretched relatives, answered. When Jane arrives in Bitter Springs, Wyoming, she and Morgan take a few days to get to know each other, then decide to proceed with the marriage. But both Jane and Morgan have backgrounds full of secrets, and one of Morgan’s is coming back, placing them in grave danger. Between the excellent prose and the intriguing characters, I didn’t realize until about two-thirds of the way through the book that the plot isn’t all it could be. It’s still a very good book, but I wish it had been great.
Watching Morgan and Jane get to know each other is terrific. They are practical and appropriately cautious, taking the time to become better acquainted before following through on their plan to marry. Goodman doesn’t tell us secrets that Jane and Morgan haven’t told each other, which was much more interesting than having all the answers myself and waiting for the characters to get them. I also enjoyed the natural dialogue written in strong character voices. I learned a lot about Jane and Morgan from what they did and didn’t say, and how they did and didn’t say it.
Unfortunately, the book didn’t continue at this level. The densely-written scenes of the first half gave way to more dilute writing, and character development yielded to action sequences. In Jane and Morgan, Goodman has produced two memorable and complex characters. I had been looking forward to a climax about relationship progress, trust, and secrets. Instead, it’s a crime story action sequence, which is not one of Goodman’s many strengths. The book felt like the literary version of a fashion victim, doing something trendy and more appropriate to someone else.
While it makes sense to advance the plot by having various characters disclose past secrets or endure crises together, In Want of a Wife takes an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to conflict that starts to feel like a soap opera. You can barely think of a problem characters in the book don’t face. Intercepted letters, abortion, sexual abuse, being orphaned, a criminal past, wicked relatives, a fraud scheme, infertility, attempted rape, a hostage crisis… it became vaguely ridiculous.
I have a few other complaints. The description of a child’s sexual abuse was far too detailed for my comfort. And, any time a romance character says she’s infertile, I swear it will be no more than fifty pages before the morning sickness starts. The sex scenes had too much narration as well. But I don’t want to diminish the fact that the first couple hundred pages of this book are outstanding. The second half isn’t awful, just excessive. I will absolutely look for another Jo Goodman, hopefully one which showcases her writing talents and her strong characters.