THE 19TH WIFE by David Ebershoff (Random House), 515 pages, $30 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Sex. Religion. Politics. Cults. Murder. Infamy. Good hooks, right?
The 19th Wife has them all but avoids the easy drive to mass-market territory. Instead, it's a hefty, ambitious novel rich in complexly rendered characters.
If you're drawn to the plural wife waifs on HBO's Big Love, you'll like Ebershoff's third novel. Why would any woman choose to marry a polygamist? Ebershoff examines every aspect of the issue, from the 19th century to the present. No simple feat.
The multi-layered narrative contains two primary stories, one historical and one contemporary. The divided time frame is effective, allowing us to see what has shifted over time and how, through the eyes of the first female anti-polygamy crusader and a gay man abandoned by his 19 mother figures as a child.
Ann Eliza Young, the real-life 19th wife of Brigham Young, prophet leader of the Mormon Church, escapes to become the first anti-polygamist. The modern narrative is told by Jordan, a fictional L.A. fag excommunicated as a teen. He returns to Utah to visit his estranged mother, the 19th wife of a prophet of the Firsts, who is accused of having shot his father while he was cruising an online sex site.
The story of Jordan's return to Mesadale is both hilarious and heartbreaking. His quest for the real killer is at the heart of the story.
Embedded in the text are mock-historical documents, letters and diaries that begin to crowd the whodunit core of the novel by the book's end.
This is a minor consideration given the overall achievement of a story as vibrant and textured as The 19th Wife, a novel that is both a thoughtful reflection on faith and family and a gripping murder mystery.
Ebershoff reads Saturday (October 25), 8 pm, in the Brigantine Room.