Thursday, August 26, 2010

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

The 19th Wife: A NovelTitle: The 19th Wife
Author: David Ebershoff
Pages: 507
Published: 2009 Random House
Read For: Monday Night Book Club

Honestly?  I had a hard time reading this book and would not have picked it up in the first place were it not the August selection for my Monday Night Book Club, simply because the subject matter is not an easy one for me to read about.  This fact may color my review.

This book tells a dual story:  first of Ann Eliza Young, an historical figure in the Mormon Church's early days who escaped a plural marriage with Brigham Young; second of Jordan Scott, the estranged son of a plural wife in modern day Utah accused of the murder of his father, her husband.  Because of the semi-biographical nature of part of the book (Ann Eliza Young did exist, was married--and divorced--from Brigham Young, and wrote her autobiography "Wife No. 19" in 1875) it often left me confused, wondering what parts of the book were real, and which were imagined.  The Author's Note and Reader's Guide in the back of the book answered many of these questions, and I almost wonder if it would have been better to read these prior to reading the novel; perhaps it would have allowed me to relax into the story more.

The novel mixes articles and letters into the two different narratives, and generally does a good job in pace between the different time periods (it seemed heavy on the modern story at the beginning, and heavy on the historical story at the end.) The modern portion had too much swearing for my taste, although it wasn't unrealistic considering the circumstances, and not quite so extreme as to be overwhelming.  One of the minor characters at the beginning of the novel (Roland) seemed rather clichéd to me, which made it difficult for me to get into the book.

What stayed with me after reading the novel is the tension I felt throughout.  The author did a great job showing the effects of plural marriage: the disheartening destruction of self-worth, not only for the women involved, but for the children.  What a horrible thing to use someone's faith and conviction as a means for condoned abuse.  The corruption and pain in this book made it difficult for me to read much at a time.  The small flickers of hope weren't enough to dispel the atmosphere of heartbreak.  Do I feel more educated? more empathetic?  Yes, I think I do.  But I also feel sad.  Somewhat hopeless, and sad.


  1. Hmmm--a friend just loaned me this. It sounds interesting but I'm definitely going to have to be in the right mood to pick it up.

  2. Nice review. It does sound like a heavy read. Curious, does this book give a bad picture about Mormons and if so in what way? --Thanks.

  3. Interesting review, Melody. For some reason I am absolutely fascinated by polygamy. I am actually a member of the Mormon church and many of my ancestors practice polygamy. The best books on the subject, I have found, help the reader to understand the point of view of those who choose to enter a polygamous marriage. Surprisingly, there are actually a lot of benefits - it frees up a lot of time for the women, for example, as the wives take turns cooking, cleaning, and watching the children.

    Anyways, not like I would EVER consider being in a polygamous marriage, haha, WOW. There's something really freaky about it, isn't there? I think the less interesting books generally cast polygamy in a bad light & are very one sided. It seems like that's what the case was here.

    Anyway, if anyone else here comes upon some interesting books on this subject, let me know! I'm over at

  4. I just bought a copy of this book at a secondhand book sale last week...sounds quite heavy. I'll have to make sure I'm in the right frame of mind!

  5. Does it sound strange if, after the review I just wrote, I say that I'm not convinced that the book is actually a heavy read? I really think that your feelings about polygamy in general will greatly color how you perceive the book. For some reason, I start to get depressed as soon as I think about polygamy.

    I don't think that it paints a bad picture of Mormons at all. In fact, I thought that many of the characters were amazing, open hearted, caring people. The author really did a good job at showing that we are all people, with both positives and negatives. Sure, there were some less than stellar Mormon characters, but that wasn't the norm.

    IngridLola--See, I'd love to hear what someone with a fascination for the topic thinks of the book, because I imagine it would be quite a different opinion from mine.

    This book did point out the positives of polygamy. It made sure to show that not every plural wife thought it was a bad institution, and it really did a great job at showing how people might come to accept it, even if they were previously opposed to the idea.

    You guys should read it! I want to know what you think. Tell me I'm off my rocker and that I should just get over it already. :)

  6. This is on my wishlist but I've not yet read a positive review of it :/

  7. Interesting...I need to go search up some other reviews of it. I can't wait to hear what the other girls in my book club thought--for once I'm having a hard time predicting.


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