The most dysfunctional family…ever. (4 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published by Vintage Books- 2011
Paperback edition- 599 pages
I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the concept of polygamy- watching documentaries on it and seeing it somewhat sensationalised within books, TV shows and movies; the extreme story of Warren Jeffs and the like have certainly given the culture a bad, undeserved reputation. I personally wonder just how any woman can cope with sharing her husband and the kind of mentality it would take to become a plural wife- quite a strong one I imagine. I remember reading some really positive reviews of this novel when it was first published; henceforth, it languished on my Amazon wish list- and I was lucky enough to receive a copy for Christmas.
The Lonely Polygamist is the story of Fundamentalist Mormon Golden Richards and his four wives, twenty-eight children and the life they live in a small community in rural Utah. Residing within a polygamist sect, it explores the ups and downs of having plural wives and offers a fictional insight into the inner workings of this controversial lifestyle.
Initially quite a slow-burning tale, it soon becomes apparent that Golden isn’t particularly happy with his existence; his business is struggling and there is discontent between his wives and children. In order to earn some extra money to support his spouses and offspring, Golden takes a job working away on a construction site in Nevada, lying to his family that he is helping to build an old people’s home, when in actual fact it is a brothel he is helping to construct- something that is highly frowned upon by his religion. Worse, Golden is soon drawn to his bosses’ wife- she offers some much needed relief and escapism at a time when the rest of his family seems to be crumbling around him.
Well-written, interesting and engaging by Udall who is himself a Mormon, I was initially a bit wary of tackling this story, possibly due to the mammoth character list that appears towards the start of the novel- they always make me wince a bit! Admittedly, there are a lot of characters within the book, but the main characters are clearly identifiable and it soon becomes pretty obvious who is who and how they are all connected.
The story is told from three points of view- that of Golden, his fourth wife Trish and his twelve-year-old son, Rusty (to his third wife). In such a sprawling, hectic family, Rusty feels abandoned by his depressed mother, absent father and isolated from his multiple siblings, with whom he just doesn’t connect. Trish similarly as the newcomer to the wives wants more of Golden’s time and is still trying to get over the recent stillbirth of their son which deeply affected her. She also has a daughter from her first marriage who is god-fearing and somewhat pious, a perspective that Trish herself doesn’t quite share. Trish is different to the rest of the wives, younger, prettier, vibrant and still retaining some sort of connection to the ‘outside’ world which she was a part of before rejoining the polygamist sect.
The book manages to be both poignant and subtly humorous and really makes the reader consider what it would mean to live that kind of lifestyle. It is indeed something of a dark comedy in places as the reader gets to know more about Golden’s situation and what drew him to become a polygamist in the first place. Interspersed with clever flashbacks to his childhood, it also offers depth into the backgrounds of the other main characters- some of whom remain more sympathetic than others. Certainly, I wasn’t quite sure if I was meant to feel sorry for Golden’s predicament or merely irritated, as he remains something of a wimp for most of the story- and very naive. He’s not unlikeable per se, just the kind of person who is unable to stand up for himself and rather selfish. Oddly, he was probably the weakest protagonist in the storyline.
It is clear from the outset that it is first wife Beverly (Aunt Bev) who rules the roost between the households. The children, particularly Rusty, live in fear of her, the other wives kowtow to her wishes and Golden himself lets her micromanage their lifestyle. Being around for the longest, I continually questioned how she had felt about the other wives joining the family one by one and found myself smiling at her passive aggressive notes left written around ‘The Old House.’ I’m not 100% sure that Beverly is a typical representation of a Fundamentalist Mormon wife, but she did make for interesting reading and the dynamics and politics between her and her sister wives were fascinating.
I can’t really review the book without mentioning Rusty in a bit more detail- my favourite character and the star of the show. Rebellious and a bit of a kleptomaniac, he is at that age when boys become interested in knowing more about girls and sex, something that he has to hide from his family, given their beliefs. He is also resentful of his continual ‘hand me downs’ and the fact that he can’t have any one-on-one time with his mother or father or the sort of birthday party he wants. I felt so bad for Rusty, who seems like your average kid, though living in the kind of family he does, his behaviour was pretty noticeable. I just wanted to reach into the book and hug him!
Thought-provoking, wry and memorable, The Lonely Polygamist is a portrayal of a family lifestyle a bit different from the norm. It is a story of love, lies, loss and relationships and a novel I heartily enjoyed. For me, it loses one star merely as I did find some of the representations of the characters themselves slightly cartoonish and flat and the pace grew pretty slow in places. Also, by the end of the book I did consider that not a whole lot had changed from the start of the story.
**A while ago I read The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, which also handles the topic of polygamist families though with a different and more sensitive, less humoured approach. That book looks at the polygamist sect from a historical perspective, weaving truth with fiction and also something of a murder mystery. Admittedly that sounds a bit bizarre, but for further reading on this interesting subject matter, I can also highly recommend checking that novel out. **