Thursday, October 29, 2009

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Some books just take longer than a week to read. This one took more than two weeks, partly because it’s long, and partly because some of it is a slog. Nevertheless it’s an interesting book and worth reading for the 85% non-sloggish bits.

The 19th Wife is another one of those 2-in-1 tales where the author skips back and forth between a modern story and a fact-based historical one. The historical tale is about Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s 19th wife, who divorced him and led a crusade against polygamy all the way to the U.S. Senate. The modern story is about Jordan Scott, whose mother (also a 19th wife) is accused of murdering her husband, the leader of a present-day polygamous sect in Utah. Jordan’s quest to clear his mother of these charges leads him back into the sick society from which he was ejected as a teen and forces him to confront the worst of it.

Both stories are compelling. Ebershoff does a virtuoso job of writing in a variety of styles and voices. Jordan is a young gay man, filled with rage at the society in which he was raised, yet convinced that his mother did not kill his father. He’s an endearing, sympathetic character and his chapters made me feel all maternal. In contrast, Ebershoff retells Ann Eliza’s story through a fictional version of her memoir, and includes multiple supporting documents to buttress her story. It’s these supporting documents that are the slog. Sometimes in the evening I would say to myself “Well, I could go read excerpts from Brigham Young’s prison diaries, or wait! Didn’t we get a new issue of Rolling Stone in the mail?” Guess which reading material I chose.

At times I struggled with knowing where fact ended and fiction began in the sections about Ann Eliza. Ebershoff provides a helpful discussion at the end of the book about his sources and methods but of course I didn’t find that until I was done. Observant readers of this blog will notice that this is the second book this year that I’ve read about Mormon society (the first was Escape by Carolyn Jessop). Neither book presents the group in a positive light, though neither explicitly deals with life among modern day non-polygamous LDS church members.

(Book 36, 2009)


Amused said...

Great review! I've been hearing about this book more and more lately so I liked your recap.

Citizen Reader said...

Oh my gosh, I couldn't even read your whole review because I kept getting stuck on the concept of "19th wife." 19 wives. What man even wants that? Sounds like a high-maintenance lifestyle.
(And I haven't even thought about it from the woman's side yet, like who wants to be the 19th wife? Imagine getting along with 18 other women you have no choice but to get along with. Yikes.)

I'll have to come back and read your review again when I've wrapped my mind around it.

Kim said...

I came across your blog looking for opinions of this book. I have been struggling with it off and on for a few months. I read about a book a week also, and rarely have trouble finishing one. I keep getting bored with this one. From cruising around your blog, it looks like you and I have read many of the same books, so maybe I will work my way through the "slog" and try to finish it sometime. Have you read The Help yet? I just finished it last night and loved it.

Becky Holmes said...

Kim, I think you should just skip over the boring parts and read the end. You'll get just as much out of it.

I have been curious about The Help but haven't yet read it. I am glad to hear that you liked it. Maybe I will bump it up a bit higher in my list.

Portugal said...

I found this book to be a remarkable story with twists and turns throughout the book that can keep your attention. I enjoyed the plot and while it took a minute for all the characters to fall into place, it is a wonderful read once they do. While I can not say that it gives a complete real look into a Mormon household, it does give voice to those less heard. The 19th Wife is a bit shocking to read in some parts, but overall Ebershoff delivers a fantastic story.

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