The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Back in September I was asked by Lisa at Books on the Brain to take part in a virtual book tour for David Ebershoff‘s new book, The 19th Wife. Because I was flattered to be asked, and I would be getting a free hardcover copy of the novel, I agreed. I write for free books apparently.

The novel is part fictional autobiography of the infamous Ann Eliza Young the self-proclaimed 19th wife of uber-polygamist Brigham Young, the second president of the Latter Day Saints aka The Mormons, whose divorce from him attracted national attention and possibly led to the U.S. governments smack down on polygamy in Utah. It is also part murder mystery as Ebershoff attempts to tie Ann Eliza’s narrative to the plight of a modern day polygamy sect. In this narrative, a young gay man named Jordan is unwillingly drawn back into his family’s drama when his mother, a 19th wife, is accused of shooting his father in cold blood. 

In addition to the two main stories, a variety of sub-plots are tied together by supporting Ann Eliza’s depiction of the early LDS church as it is infected and then overtaken by plural marriage, and also by the various characters’ connections to the modern day Jordan and the sect in which he grew up and was ultimately ejected from as he reached manhood. There are side trips into the problems that plural marriage societies have caused today due to the banishment of young men and the perilous life of young women in these sects as well.

Where the novel works best is in its descriptions of what plural marriages did to the people involved and how it changed them. Its dim view of the effects of such adult relationships on children is quite well done. If there is a central message to be taken from the book, it’s that plural marriage is about the husband and everyone else involved – especially the children – are its victims.

Where the book slows or doesn’t work at all is with the sometimes rather lengthy side-trips that very minor characters are allowed to take that break the flow of the narrative. For example, Ann Eliza’s younger son is allowed to interrupt with a couple of long-winded letters to one of his mother’s biographers that are so off-topic I ended up skimming them. In fact, if I hadn’t committed to reviewing the novel, I would have skipped those sections entirely. There are also interruptions by Brigham Young himself via his sermonizing and a newspaper interview that slowed the story too despite his being a character of importance.

Because I love historical fiction, I found the tiny ways in which Ebershoff tied past and present together via family relations fascinating and well done, but I wondered if the average reader would pick up on them. For example, one of Ann Eliza’s biographers is also a great-great granddaughter who subsequently becomes involved with Jordan during his time investigating his father’s murder. It was a nice touch though it doesn’t really add to the story.

I found the characterizations very well done though sometimes it was the minor characters who would shine through more strongly and vividly than the two main characters of Ann Eliza and Jordan. Ann Eliza’s parents are each given a voice and are far better at spelling out the complexity of the plural marriage issue than either of the main characters. Sometimes I found myself wishing it was their story and not their daughter’s I was reading.

In the end, the murder mystery itself is not very compelling. I didn’t really care who killed Jordan’s dad because he was such a repellent person I couldn’t imagine anyone lamenting his death – not even Jordan’s mother, who is so thoroughly indoctrinated in the bogus idea of redemption through multiple marriage that she willingly abandoned Jordan when he was just fourteen and professes love of his father even though he’d cast her off for newer, younger women.

In the end it is the side-shows which make the novel such a good read, and it was a good read. I finished it in less than a week, devouring it a hundred pages at a time in some sittings. It is an ambitious undertaking and a timely topic. Even if a person doesn’t generally read history or its fictional equivalent, I still think he/she would enjoy this novel and recommend it to everyone.

If you would like to find out more about this book, check out the rest of his book tour here.

3 thoughts on “The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

  1. Many years ago, I use to have a Mormon girlfriend. I read the Book of Mormon and would attended services because I wanted to find out more about her. When boiled down, the LDS is no odder than any other organized religion. They all seem to be rooted in fear.

    Thanks for the literary tip. I’ll add it to my list.

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