The 19th Wife is a book I’ve wanted to read for quite a while. I kept looking at it at Barnes and Noble, and then putting it down again. Finally when I got a lot of gift cards for Christmas, I included it in my purchase. I wish I’d bought it sooner is all I can say. As usual, there are some spoilers; I will refrain from posting the biggest ones.
This is both a historical novel and a contemporary mystery woven together. From the historical aspect, I think Ebershoff did some great research. He does say in his author’s note at the end of the novel that he did take some liberties in areas that were not well-documented, and I appreciated that he owned up to that. Regardless of that, however, I think he did a great job of reproducing, in more modern language, the tale of Brigham Young’s 19th wife, Ann Eliza Young. Many times I found myself so intrigued with the real, historical aspects of the novel that I went on a 30- or 45-minutes Google spree, looking up more information. And in terms of the modern mystery? A sect of Mormons, calling themselves the First Latter-day Saints (or Firsts), has experienced the murder of one of the group’s husbands, and all evidence points to his 19th wife. It’s up to her son, Jordan (who has been kicked out of the Firsts for “holding his step-sister’s hand”) to figure out who really did it and free his mom. Eventually, the two time periods meet in a way that is somewhat unexpected but nevertheless interesting.
One thing I thought was very effective with the structure of this novel is how the author played with form and voice. Throughout the 507 pages (in the paperback edition), there a variety of different forms and voices used: normal narrative from Ann Eliza and Jordan’s point-of-view, newspaper clippings, emails, instant messages, Brigham Young’s diary, correspondence, etc. It feels very Jodi Picoult to me (which is a good thing, I guess, because against my better judgment and despite her last two books I am a fan).
But. There’s always a but, isn’t there? This novel, despite the fact that I really, really liked it and would recommend it to others, does have its flaws. Although I liked how Ebershoff used different forms to tell this tale, he lacked a difference in voice from his characters from the 1800s. The way Ann Eliza wrote and the way Brigham Young wrong and the way Lorenzo Dee wrote — they all sound exactly the same. It bothered me to never experience a difference between the two.
And while I’m picking bones, there is a relationship between Jordan and another character that just goes from zero to nothing like THAT. It took me by surprise, and I felt like it was not needed to tell the story. Jordan’s work could have been accomplished had that character merely remained a new friend as opposed to a new, possible lover. It was so gimmicky and forced and I think anyone who reads it would feel the same.
My only other “meh” feeling about this book is the way the history and the mystery tie together. It isn’t really that shocking, and it’s never really clearly revealed, and that bothered me, especially when I was reading the reader’s guide at the back of the book and saw that one of the questions said something along the lines of “When did you figure how how Ann Eliza and Jordan’s stories connected?” I’m pretty quick on these things, and I didn’t get it until I was told.
Overall, though, I liked this book. A lot. Mostly awesome writing, and a fun, intriguing story.