Sunday, February 15, 2009

The 19th Wife

The 19th Wife
Author: David Ebershoff
Random House, 2008
507 pages

Every now and then a book comes along that just surprises you with either unexpectedly good writing or a deliciously palatable plot. Here's one that has both. The 19th Wife is a book within a book, a thesis within a history, a complex web of plots and twists. It's just clever. And I like that.

Ann Eliza Young was one of polygamist Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) leader Brigham Young's wives back in the late 19th century. Apparently she divorced him, wrote a book, and toured on the lecture circuit, making her quite the tabloid celebrity of her day as she campaigned against polygamy. Eventually, the Church had to end its official policy on plural marriage, and she gets part of the credit for creating awareness of the various negative aspects of that institution. The 19th Wife is in part "autobiography of Ann Eliza Young" combined with various "historical documents" written by people in Ann's life: her father, her son, her brother, and Brigham himself. 

Meanwhile in Mesadale, Utah - a desert outpost of a town known to be the home of an offshoot of the church that still practices polygamy - a family patriarch is murdered. His "19th wife" is implicated, arrested, and prepares to be convicted in what will surely be the trial of the century. Her son, Jordan, returns to Utah from California to help, and through his narrative we get the perspective of polygamy's affect on a 21st century male - who happens to be gay. 

The books goes back and forth between characters, writing styles, and centuries. Ebershoff is convincing using any voice. Despite the mediocre ratings on Amazon.com and other book review sites, I liked it a LOT. It's one of the best books I've read this year (OK, I know it's just February). Consider it highly recommended from this reviewer!

Rating: 5 stars because I LOVE the writing.