The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

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The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: Two novels in one – a modern murder mystery intertwined with a fictional reworking of history – set in the Mormon world of polygamy. Very interesting in some places, but not as good a read as I'd been led to believe by the Richard and Judy blurb. Possibly over-ambitious and ultimately disappointing.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 608 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Black Swan
ISBN: 978-0552774987

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David Ebershoff's latest novel, The 19th Wife, develops two parallel stories, one of them a fictionalized account of historical fact, the other a modern day murder mystery. Both revolve around polygamy and the Mormons, and both involve a 19th wife. The first of these wives is Ann Eliza Young, the real-life 19th spouse of the real-life 19th Century Mormon prophet Brigham Young. The second 19th wife is the mother of our modern-day narrator, Jordan Scott. Jordan's mother has been accused of murdering his father. He is sure she must be innocent, and decides to penetrate the closed society that rejected him in order to discover the truth.

The parts of the book dealing with Ann Eliza Young take in the whole history of the Mormons, from their establishment and early clashes with the Authorities — including the Haun's Mill Massacre, in which many of their number were murdered with the approval of the state government — until their final settlement in Utah. Ann's personal story takes us through her unhappy marriage to one man, her divorce and subsequent 'marriage' as the 19th wife of Brigham Young, a man who receives messages directly from God. Eventually, Ann breaks free of the prophet's hold, seeks a divorce and begins a public campaign against the evils of polygamy.

In telling this part of the story, Ebershoff has constructed fictional texts, diaries, memoirs, legal depositions, letters, newspaper articles, and even a cod Wikipedia entry. We are presented with accounts by Ann herself, by Ann's father, Chauncey, by her brother Gilbert, by Brigham Young himself, by various others. We are shown a college dissertation and Mormon sermons. Ebershoff has clearly done an awful lot of research (and there's an extensive bibliography to prove it) and most of his constructions therefore come across as very realistic. The result, unfortunately, is that they can also come across as a little dull (at least for this reviewer).

More interesting, at least at first, is the 21st Century story. Ebershoff's narrator, Jordon Scott, is a 20-year-old gay man who escaped the polygamous community where he grew up at the age of 14, when he was literally dumped at the side of the road by his mother. Jordon is a likeable, well-drawn character who sets out on his quest to prove his mother's innocence accompanied by his faithful dog Elektra, and with a lot of wry, understandably-bitter humour. Along the way, Jordon encounters various other characters, each with their own tale to tell. All these other 'voices', with Jordan's own memories, add another dimension to the realities of life within a polygamous community.

Quite soon, though, this modern murder mystery began to pall. There simply isn't enough suspense, and if it were a stand-alone novel, without the backdrop of Ann Eliza Young's story, there may not be enough narrative drive to keep the reader's interest going to the end. The further I got into this book, the more interested I became in the developing battle between Ann and Brigham Young, and the less interested I was in Jordan's modern-day quest. The question is, do these two interwoven stories make the whole novel work? Not, unfortunately, for this reviewer.

The 19th Wife has been selected for the current Richard and Judy Book Club, so its sales are assured. Ebershoff has a lot of interesting things to say about religion in general, the Mormons specifically, and the whole question of polygamy in modern-day America. But I found the time shifts tended to break into the tension of both tales, and the weaknesses in the modern mystery were ultimately disappointing. And at 600 pages, these minor problems eventually became major irritations.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book has sparked your interest in Mormon Fundamentalism then try Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer. For an excellent combination of historical fiction and murder mystery take a look at The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale.

Buy The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff at Amazon.com.


Booklists.jpg The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff is in the Richard and Judy Shortlist 2009.

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