Book Review-19th Wife by David Ebershoff

The 19th Wife is a complex novel. It's an adult novel, for sure, though more mature teens could probably handle the content. (I'm thinking of the language. This one is far from clean.) What I loved about this one was its intensity and depth. The novel could have easily gone astray. After all, it is a novel that splits its focus in two.

One story is modern day. A man--grown son--coming back to his childhood town to see his mother who has been arrested and charged with murdering his dad (or stepdad, I think it is). He's an adult who's seen and done a bit too much. Having been kicked out of his home by his father for getting caught holding hands with one of his sisters (half-sister? step-sister?), he got along the best he could. Living on the streets. Selling his body. (Though it's been years since he was reduced to that lifestyle, he's doing "better off" now and living in California.) He's angry. He's bitter. He's confused. He's rejected the faith of his parents. And he's gay. Not going to exactly make him popular back in his hometown. But when he gets the news that his mom has been arrested--though he hasn't heard from her since he was kicked out--he packs up what he can and travels with his dog--he loves his dog!--and makes for home not knowing just what to expect. This side of the story is all mystery and drama. Can he make peace with his mom? Can he figure out who really murdered his dad?

The second story is historical. It's set in the early days of the LDS church. We see Joseph Smith and Brigham Young up, close, and personal. We get a novelized accounting of the early days of the church. It's semi-gradual shift to adopt pologamy. Our narrator through these portions shifts chapter to chapter. One of our main characters is Ann Eliza Young, a young woman who grew up in a polygamous family. A young woman who saw how hard it was on her mother for her father to keep bringing in wives. A young woman who wanted to be the one and only wife. But a woman who ultimately had bad luck in love and ended up marrying a complete jerk, having two kids, divorcing, and remarrying. She remarried the church leader actually. Became one of many of Brigham Young's wives. But that marriage didn't go smoothly. And their divorce wasn't only ugly, it was scandalous.

What these two halves have in common is polygamy. Specifically, the books present different viewpoints on how polygamy effects women and children...and ultimately even how it can be destructive and dangerous to men as well.

The novel shifts back and forth between centuries. This could have been tricky as far as pacing goes. Just when momentum is building up for one side of the story, the reader is flipped to the other one. Time and time again we're built up to a very intense point only to have the narrative shift. The good news is that I, as a reader, found both stories interesting. There were places I loved one more than the other. But even that changed throughout the novel. I didn't just love one over the other. I genuinely came to care for both stories. So, yes, it probably through me a little to have to go back and forth and back and forth. But both stories added so much to the novel as a whole, that I ended up happy with it overall.


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