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The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
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The 19th Wife (edition 2008)

by David Ebershoff

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2,4432542,524 (3.7)226
Member:cory_55
Title:The 19th Wife
Authors:David Ebershoff
Info:Doubleday (2008), Edition: Airport / Export ed, Paperback, 528 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:kindle

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The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

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Where I got the book: at a book club swap. Part of my 2014 challenge to read some books I already own.

The 19th Wife is a dual-narrative novel with interruptions. One of the main narratives proceeds from the viewpoint of Eliza Ann Young, who was the nineteenth or twenty-seventh or possibly fifty-second wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young. What is fact is that Eliza Ann divorced Brigham Young in 1873, that she wrote a book about her life among the polygamous Mormons entitled Wife No. 19, and that she traveled around America giving lectures criticizing polygamy.

The other main narrative is the tale of a purely fictitious character, Jordan, who was expelled from his fictitious modern-day polygamous community as a teenager. His mother, his father’s nineteenth wife (possibly—the counting of wives is a recurring theme) has been accused of shooting his father, and Jordan must confront his past in order to defend her.

The interruptions are in the form of autobiographical pieces from people in Eliza Ann’s life—father, brother, son, Brigham Young himself—letters and academic papers by researchers of polygamy, and at one point, a Wikipedia entry. But not a real one.

It bears repeating: What is fact is that Eliza Ann divorced Brigham Young in 1873, that she wrote a book about her life among the polygamous Mormons entitled Wife No. 19, and that she traveled around America giving lectures criticizing polygamy. The rest of this densely-packed novel is based on, inspired by, modeled after . . . you get the drift. So what we’ve got here is a piece of fiction that looks like a piece of nonfiction, sandwiched around a piece of fiction that looks a bit more like fiction that the other piece of fiction. If that sounds like a tuna marshmallow sandwich to you, that’s pretty much what it tasted like.

And yet I can’t deny the pull of a salacious topic like polygamy. Ebershoff will have many readers at “19th wife,” so titillated is the average serial monogamist over the idea of being able to have your cake AND your tuna AND your marshmallow AND your rack of lamb all at once. I’ve been known to declare on occasion that I’d like a wife, on the understanding that I’d always be Wife #1, my husband would always defer to me before the other wives, and the others would do all the housework. The best thing that Ebershoff does in this novel is to pull any attraction that idea might have from under our feet—subsequent wives lord it over the older ones, are intensely jealous of the younger ones, and all generally have a miserable time. For the husbands it’s not really a whole lot better—imagine trying to keep dozens of women happy, not to mention the heating and grocery bills.

For the student of nineteenth-century America, this novel could be a good place to start thinking about the religious experimentation and failed utopias that characterized so many communal attempts to colonize the country, but it can only ever be a place to start. You should never base a belief or a picture of history on a historical novel to start with—never trust a story that doesn’t provide inline references to its sources—but this novel, in particular, should have a warning stamped on every page, as Ebershoff makes an earnest attempt to replicate the feel of historical documents as he elaborates his story. The effect of interspersing the nineteenth-century story with a clearly fictitious modern-day one reinforces the spurious authenticity of the latter, making it even more likely that the casual reader will take Ebershoff’s version as true.

And no, I’m not trying to get into an argument here about what the Mormons did or didn’t do. Apart from admitting to a frisson of curiosity at the idea of plural marriage, I couldn’t honestly care less about the actual facts. What I do care about is the whole business of positioning fiction to sound like truth, easy to do in an age where popular histories abound, talking heads spout drivel on TV shows that are more entertainment than history, and successful historical novelists start seeing themselves as historians rather than what they are, storytellers.

Personally, I was never convinced by Ebershoff’s narrative. The voices of his nineteenth-century characters all sounded too similar, and the rhythms of their speech were too modern ever to bring me to the point where I started looking up the characters on the internet. There was little in the writing of any of these disparate parts that ever really made me sit up and take notice—I often found myself, frankly, rather bored by the text, and what kept me going was the knowledge that pretty soon we’d hop into another story so I wouldn’t have to try too hard to dig my way into the world of the one I was reading.

I liked Jordan’s story best, even though there was something very thin and superficial about it. It gave me the impression of a story outline rather than a fully fleshed-out novel. The test of a book like this is: If you only read one of the narratives, would it stand up by itself as a great story? And the answer is, in Jordan’s case, no. It’s not a bad story, but not a great one. Eliza Ann’s tale also has a certain thinness to it despite the dense wodges of wordiness it employs to shore up its nineteenth-century cred. There are themes of love, belief, trust, good universal stuff, but none of them catch fire in the way they’d have to in order to make the two stories really work together rather than just leaving the reader with the impression that they’ve been switching between two books, neither of which is particularly great.

And when I give this book three stars, I’m judging it on the basis of its own fawning hype. It was published in 2008, when traditional publishing still reigned supreme (hey it still does, let’s not kid ourselves, but it’s the reign of a sick king who’s unable to designate a worthy successor) and it has all the hallmarks of the darlings of the trad pub industry: spurious seriousness, a veneer of originality, a split-narrative structure, a lipsmacking subject. It was just interesting enough for me to keep going, but if I’d been really pushed for time with my reading commitments, I could just have easily have dropped this one. I might keep it for the informal bibliography in the author’s note, though, in case something else sparks an interest in nineteenth-century polygamy that this book should probably have given me, but didn’t. ( )
  JaneSteen | Jul 13, 2014 |
The 19th Wife is a novel with two alternating plot lines. In the present day, twenty year old Jordan Scott, who was raised in Utah in a polygamous Mormon sect, was exiled at age fourteen from his community. His mother drove him to the local highway, handed him a few dollars and abandoned him. Years later, when Jordan's father is found shot dead in his home, his mother is accused and arrested. Jordan visits her in prison, where she insists she is innocent. He then begins to put the pieces together to try and figure out who really killed his father.

The story also travels back to the 1800's and Ann Eliza Young, the prophet Brigham Young's 19th wife. At age twenty four, Ann Eliza Webb was forced to marry Young, the sixty year old president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Can you believe that? And, she had to marry him because Young tricked her brother into bankrupting himself and he purposely tainted his name with the community. Young then made a deal with Ann Eliza's brother, saying he would pay off his debt and return him to good standing with the church, if he convinced his sister to marry him. After several years, a miserable Ann Eliza ends up divorcing Young. She wrote a memoir, Wife No. 19, in order to inform others what the life of a plural wife was really like. Both in this novel and in real life, she tried to put a stop to plural marriage.

The way author David Ebershoff tells this story is fantastic. I was enthralled as I listened to the accounts of life in Salt Lake City, Utah. He weaves in fiction and fact wonderfully and tells this dual story seamlessly. Much of the accounts of life in the polygamous sect were uncomfortable to hear, yet fascinating at the same time.

I listened to this one on audio, over eighteen hours worth, and the four narrators did a great job. I had no problem telling these characters apart and I followed the two different storylines easily. However, I do think that in reading the actual book I would have gotten a better grasp on the excerpts from newspaper and article clippings that appeared at random throughout.

I did enjoy Ann Eliza Young's account more than the modern day murder mystery. It was an unsettling story and the author did a great job at getting Ann Eliza to draw you into her narrative. She would sometimes ask the reader's opinion... "Dear reader..." as she told her account. Yet at times, I wondered just how reliable any of these narrators were, especially Ann Eliza. In the end I found her to be a fascinating person.

The story leads you all the way past Anne Eliza's divorce from Young and the ensuing court battle over whether she deserved alimony from him. Her son Lorenzo narrates some of the book towards the end, as he tells of what it was like growing up in a polygamous sect.

In the end, when I found out who killed Jordan's father, I was taken by surprise. I had no idea who the killer was going to be, but it made sense. The story has a bittersweet ending and the last few lines regarding Jordan and his mother made me a little misty eyed.
I think The 19th Wife would make for a nice group read, it's a story that begs to be discussed.

disclaimer:
I borrowed by copy of The 19th Wife from my local library. This review is my honest opinion. I did not receive any type of compensation for reading and reviewing this book. While I receive free books from publishers and authors, I am under no obligation to write a positive review.
http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-19th-wife-by-david-ebershoff.html ( )
  bookworm_naida | May 28, 2014 |
Switching back and forth between a (slightly fictionalized) memoir by the woman who sued Brigham Young for divorce in 1875 -- he was a vile person -- and a modern murder mystery worked very well. I do have a thing about polygamy, but I would have enjoyed this novel, anyway. ( )
  picardyrose | Apr 15, 2014 |
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff is a solid, enjoyable novel, even though its characters endure some brutal emotional experiences. The story switches between the circumstances of two women in two different centuries - the switch to the modern times reinforcing the emerging darkness of the polygamist culture of the 19th century. This is a book that conveys the pain and damage that society can inflict in the name of a greater authority, and in a touching way, exposes us to credible examples of how genuine caring for others is the basis of all good things in life. ( )
  jvandehy | Feb 8, 2014 |
Ebershoff's research is thorough, in both the historical and the modern aspects of his story. I was imoressed with his ability to write from multiple points of view from varied time periods, and be true to the voice of each character. This book made me think about issues I had not explored before, and made me aware of the harmful impacts of polygamy on women. I troubling story, told well. ( )
1 vote Amber.Foxx | Jan 14, 2014 |
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Epigraph
Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. - Saint Augustine
Like all the other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study, nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it. - Arthur Conan Doyle
And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men. - The Book of Mormons, translated by Joseph Smith, Jr.
Dedication
for my parents Dave and Becky Ebershoff and for David Brownstein
First words
Preface to the First Edition:
In the one year since I renounced my Mormon faith, and set out to tell the nation the truth about American polygamy, many people have wondered why I ever agreed to become a plural wife.
Wife #19:
A Desert Mystery
By Jordan Scott:
Prologue
Her Big Boy
According to the St. George Register, on a clear night last June, at some time between eleven and half-past, my mom—who isn't anything like this—tiptoed down to the basement of the house I grew up in with a Big Boy .44 Magnum in her hands.
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"This exquisite tour de force explores the dark roots of polygamy and its modern-day fruit in a renegade cult not recognized by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormon church). Ebershoff (The Danish Girl) brilliantly blends a haunting fictional narrative by Ann Eliza Young, the real-life 19th “rebel” wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young, with the equally compelling contemporary narrative of fictional Jordan Scott, a 20-year-old gay man whose mother, another 19th wife, is accused of murdering his polygamist father, a member of the fundamentalist First Latter-day Saints, in Mesadale, Ariz. Excommunicated from the church at 14, Jordan tirelessly works, with help from local sympathizers, to unmask his father's true killer. In an author's note, Ebershoff explains how his character differs from the actual Ann Eliza, who published two autobiographies, the first of which helped put pressure on the Mormon church to renounce polygamy in 1890. With the topic of plural marriage and its shattering impact on women and powerless children in today's headlines, this novel is essential reading for anyone seeking understanding of the subject." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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The history of polygamy in the Mormon Church intertwines the story of Ann Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, and a modern mystery in which a polygamous man has been found murdered and one of his wives is accused of the crime.

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