Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Summer is coming, and aren't we all excited! I'm so excited to wear shorts, walk around in flip flops, sit in the warm sun, and to SLEEP. Summer becomes that time of year synonymous with rest, and I can't wait. The one downside that I've noticed is that I don't read any more than during my busy season. That, I can't figure out. You really would think that I'd spend massive amounts of time reading, but that's just not so. I tend to read a lot more during the school year. We'll see if I can change things around this summer, but...we'll see.

As I prepare for the summer, I've been thinking about the books that I want to take, and I've determined that I really MUST catch up on books I've either won, been given (ARCs), or TBRs that have been hanging around forever. I recently came up with a system for reviewing books, with a calendar and a number system for books I need to read. Thanks to that system, I recently finished a really interesting book that I won from Book Nut, The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff. This was a lovely signed copy, and one that I was delighted to take a little time to read.

Synopsis: Centered on the hot topic of polygamy, Ebershoff's novel takes on two narrative threads, weaving together the story of Brigham Young's "19th" wife Eliza Ann, with that of a modern day polygamist family in Southern Utah. The story begins with the murder of a modern day polygamist husband, supposedly shot by one of his several wives. The son of this wife, driven out by the prophet and community years earlier, returns to Utah to try to unravel the mystery behind his father's murder, only to determine that it couldn't have been his own mother. As this story unfolds, we learn more about polygamy in Utah as it must have been in the 1800's under Brigham Young. Using some of the story of written by one of Brigham's wives who "divorced" (if that's what it was in a marriage not recognized by the government) him and left the state, we learn more about the women who entered into polygamist marriages, and the women who married the prophet, Brigham Young. In both stories, action and mystery unfold to reveal unbelievable drama, whether occurring 200 years ago or today.

Review: Polygamy is not an easy subject to wrap one's mind around, and I can't say that I feel any better about it now than I did before. In Ebershoff's novel, you get the sense that he is trying to not necessarily explain polygamy, but to demonstrate some of the effects of the institution on those involved or around it. Although I had read several autobiographies in college of women who had lived through polygamy, and that each of their experiences had been negative, that I knew very little about how modern-day polygamy played out. Transposed with the older version of polygamy, the modern institution seemed pretty evil. By the mere fact that young boys had been cast out of the community because they were seen as a threat to the other men, felt really destructive to families and society as a whole. With this in mind, the human stories of the novel felt dramatic, and sucked me in fairly quickly.

Although the novel feels like dense reading, I got pulled into the lives of these two families and I often found myself flipping ahead in the novel to see what was going to come up next...and I never do that! Jordan is part of the modern story, and was the son of the father that was killed, and mother that they believed killed him. As he returned to St. George and Southern Utah to find out more about the murder, I felt a lot of anxiety for him. Without too much information, you get the sense that Jordan is 100% not welcome. People in the community know who he is, and he is seen as a threat to the community at large. It's an interesting idea to consider a young man (who incidentally is gay) as a threat to the adults in the community, by the mere fact of being a male. It really stands to question on what religious standpoint does one's gender seem like an okay reason to ostracize? I know that this wanders more into the arena of social engineering, and not religion, but it seems that modern-day polygamist families have built an entire belief system around the concept of family as part of an eternal salvation. Doesn't it seem backward then to "cast out" the sons you had in that very family, for whatever reason? It just had me feeling a lot of empathy for Jordan from the very beginning.

Regardless of one's feeling towards polygamy, early or modern, Ebershoff's novel felt to me like it wasn't trying to deliver a verdict, but a dramatic story. I can't say I loved The 19th Wife, because there is a discomfort factor that had me on edge a bit, but I was thoroughly engaged in this dramatic story and mystery. The novel is, however, a really good story, definitely well written and researched, and one that I would recommend to readers who want a pretty involved novel about polygamy and the myriads it has affected.

This novel counts as my 2nd in the Books I've Won Challenge at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time. Thanks again to Melissa at Book Nut for this great book-reading opportunity!

*FTC Disclosure: Book review was based off of a book won from another book blogger. No monetary rewards are coming from this review.


  1. This book has been on my wishlist for a while. I can imagine that there is a discomfort factor and I'm not sure how I'd deal with that, but still I'm interested in reading the book.

    Like you, I don't think I read more in summer, but I always expect to do so during the schoolyear.

  2. This sounds like a really good book. I find the subject of polygamy really interesting... (strange but interesting)

  3. This book has been on my shelf for ages and I'd love to get to it. Great review!