It’s hard to find my review today of Pasadena novelist David Ebershoff’s new book, “The 19th Wife,” online, so I’ll post it here. (We’re working out some technical problems to better get our feature stories on the Web site.) Ebershoff will be returning to his hometown next Thursday, Aug. 14 for a 6:30 p.m. reading and signing at Vroman’s. Here’s my take on “Wife,” his best and most ambitious novel, one very much worth your time whether you are as a rule a reader of high literary fiction, of big fat pageturners, or have an interest in the Mormons and the West:
Novelists occasionally nail a precise historical moment through genuine prescience – William Gibson conceptualizing (and coining the term) cyberspace in his “Neuromancer” of 1984, say – or by simply being in touch with the zeitgeist, as first-novelist Janelle Brown is right now with her “All We Wanted Was Everything,” about a family wrecked by Silicon Valley nouveau-riche angst.
And sometimes they hit it by sheer luck, which is surely what David Ebershoff (“The Danish Girl,” “Pasadena”) has done with his gorgeously written, deeply imagined “The 19th Wife.” Tackling its parallel stories of the very real Ann Eliza Young, 19th (officially acknowledged) wife of Mormon patriarch Brigham Young, and a murder mystery within a polygamous contemporary Mormon breakaway cult in southern Utah, was the work of many years.
Even with the industry insights Pasadena native Ebershoff has as a longtime Random House editor and former publishing director of the Modern Library, he couldn’t have seen coming this summer’s headlines about allegations of incest and child abuse on a massive scale in a polygamous Texas Mormon offshoot.
That these ongoing news stories and last week’s New York Times Magazine cover story will help sell his third novel is simply kismet. But the good timing that comes through our current fascination with wacked-out, supposedly God-legitimized multiple marriage has little to do with the reasons to read “The 19th Wife.”
Perhaps the overarching reason to seek it out, one that will keep it being read for generations, is that it’s a book written with a genuine ambition to be a contender for The Great American Novel – and you don’t much see that kind of Marquezian reach. If jazz is the only truly original American art form, Ebershoff sees that Mormonism is the only homegrown religion that has succeeded on a massive scale. Alone among fiction writers not of Mormon background themselves, he sees the myriad storytelling possibilities that flow from this grand native myth of upstate New York farmer Joseph Smith finding golden tablets buried in his fields telling of a lost tribe of Israel that ended up in the Americas and of the need for believers to create a new Zion here.
But the reach for greatness on that scale is not precisely why we pick up a novel to read ourselves. Otherwise, we’d make more of an effort to finally open the more obscure Faulkner tomes that remain uncracked on our shelves. While the things that make “The 19th Wife” work certainly include its massive ambition, along with the rich storytelling possibities that come when women and children are caught up in the perversity of polygamy, that’s not all that will keep you enthralled here.
First, it’s the extraordinarily endearing voice of Ann Eliza herself, our first-person guide through the vagaries of Mormonism, the debilitating trek west to Utah from Missouri and how she ended up as both the Prophet’s “final wife” and then his undying enemy. The historical Ann Eliza published her own book, “Wife No. 19, Being a complete expose of Mormonism, and revealing the sorrows, sacrifices and sufferings of women in polygamy” in 1876 after her divorce from Young. She also went on a national lecture tour on “plural marriage and its woes” that led to her testifying before Congress, a change in federal laws overseeing the Utah territory legal system and ultimately the theological repudiation of marrying more than one wife by the later leaders of the Latter-Day Saints.
That voice is both of its times and somehow rather magically written so as to sound entirely not archaic – perhaps it’s her early feminist passion that makes Ann Eliza’s ongoing conversation with the reader sound so contemporary.
There are actually many other narrators for Ebershoff’s historical story – Brigham Young himself, other church leaders, purported newspaper stories from the time, court documents, Ann Eliza’s son many years later in correspondence, a fictional current-day BYU student writing a women’s study thesis. If knowing that makes the notion of reading “The 19th Wife” sound anything like tedious or some kind of uncomfortable meta-fiction marathon, it’s not. In fact it all crystal clear and goes down quite easily. I can’t help but think that for someone who in his day job was Norman Mailer’s last editor, perhaps there was a vow made to keep his own prose resolutely uncranky and straightforward.
The separate – except that it is entirely wrapped up in the issue of 21st century American polygamy – contemporary story that is folded into the narrative could have been a quite fine short novel in itself. It touches on several familiar Ebershoff themes and places — including growing up gay, and Pasadena, where the narrator who has escaped a polygamous communal upbringing in Utah lives. And everytime we come back to young Jordan Scott’s story of trying to prove that his mother did not kill his father even though he fully suspects that she did, and with good reason, it’s a wonderful tonic respite for our sometimes intensive learning about Mormonism in the 19th century.
Jordan’s father is killed as he’s engaged in a late-night online flirtation/card game: “After my dad was shot the blood seeped across his gunsandammo.com t-shirt in a heavy stain … When I was a kid I used to dream he was a cowboy. I would imagine him out in the barn saddling his roan with the white socks, readying himself for a ride of justice. But my dad never rode anywhere for justice. He was a religious con man, a higher-up in a church of lies, the kind of schemer who goes around saying God meant for man to have many women and children and that they shall be judged on how they obey.”
Jordan’s accused mom is also wife No. 19. The way her and her family’s lives – along with those of others who rebel at their peril against the men who use the color of religious authority to play a vast sexual field — bounce up against the historical bravery of the original 19th wife propels Ebershoff’s novel compellingly forward through the boundless complexities that come when an already unusual faith is knocked from any higher plane by prophets who feel empowered to create a theological rubric for their lust.