The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff ****

19thwifeEbershoff is a strong story teller. In The 19th Wife, he weaves the stories of polygamy in and out of one another, often to hilarious result, and at other times thought provoking.

Ann Eliza Young was the 19th wife, at least according to some accounts, of Brigham Young, famous pioneer leader of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, referred to by members as LDS, and to most others as Mormons. Ann Eliza was a rebel, and she left Young, refusing to be stuck in a polygamous marriage. Ebershoff has used this real-life bit of history to create a fictional journal for her and other historical figures that played a role in her life, some of whom were real, and others who weren’t.

The formal prose that he uses in spinning her first person narrative, and that of others in her story, creates a startling juxtaposition with his present-day characters, chief among them Jordan Scott, one of the so-called lost boys who have been booted out of a current day polygamous sect in order to scale down the competition for young, nubile brides so that the old farts can have a greater supply of women. But the geezers didn’t really have to worry about Jordan taking their ladies, since he is gay. So honey, go from the formal speech of religious people in the 19th century, to that of a gay Californian in the year Y2K, and well there you go. The leaps that Habershoff depicts between their speech mannerisms almost have to make you laugh out loud.

I accidentally read this book twice, once around the time it came out, and then, having forgotten I’d already read it and given it away, I got another copy from the library and was almost done by the time deja vu struck.

Both times I read it (oh yes, I remember now) the story and dialogue were drop-dead funny at first, but by the end I just wanted to be done. Since I have a greater than average attention span and am generally fine with a really long book, I took a day to think about why the joy went out of this juicy novel toward the end.

There are two reasons, I think (though it is still a really good tale) that it loses steam. One is that Ebershoff goes from building situations for their hilarity, to trying to solve his character’s problems in a way that makes sense. My own opinion is that if he was starting with chaos–and the set-up is that Jordan’s mother has been framed for murdering his father, and he sets out to Utah in order to rescue her–then he should have stuck with chaos. It’s all outrageous in the beginning, but toward the end we seem to be veering toward a reasonable ending, at least in many ways, and a moral to the story that isn’t needed and is almost out of place.

The other reason is that the toxic waste that is polygamy isn’t something I want to steep in for very long. It’s a little like a trashy tabloid that momentarily excites our curiosity but leaves us feeling a little soiled if we flip through it for too long. For me, then, had this been wrapped up more quickly, the pacing would not have been lost and I could have emerged laughing as hard at the end as I was at the get-go.

All told: a fun romp that could have been even better.

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