Publisher: Berkley Trade, October, 2012
Genre: Literary Fiction/Historical Fiction
My Rating: A+
Kelly O’Connor McNees is a superb writer. She proved it to me in her debut novel, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. (Click the title for my review.) In that book she made me want to go back and read everything Louisa May Alcott wrote all over again.
Ms. O’Connor’s approach is a bit different in this new book, In Need of a Good Wife. It’s still historical fiction, but this time she looks in-depth at the lives of three women. The setting is post-Civil War New York City and frontier Nebraska.
Following the war, many women were widowed, and many more were single with few single men available as possible husbands. Enter Clara Bixby, a woman just out of a job, whose husband has deserted her. She came up with the idea to match prospective brides with eager grooms out in the West in the frontier town of Destination, Nebraska. Clara’s idea was to charge each prospective groom a fee to cover the cost of travel expenses and a small profit for herself.
Clara’s plan was hard at first but over the course of five months, she was able to match nine brides and one housekeeper with the ten interested men in Nebraska. On the day of departure some things began to unwind – one woman changed her mind and refused to go. Two women turned around and went back home after reaching Chicago. A fourth woman died in Iowa.
By the time Clara Bixby and the six remaining women finally reached Nebraska, they were exhausted and Clara had very little money left. The men whose brides didn’t arrive were very disappointed. Three of the men took it out on Clara, as if this were her fault. They not only wanted their money back, they wanted to charge her with fraud.
One of the women, Rowena, encouraged the men to gang up on Clara. Rowena was a formerly privileged widow who saw financial and social gain by going to Nebraska. She was rude and uppity with Clara and so Clara retaliated by selecting a groom for Rowena that was quite unacceptable. Rowena’s groom was a smelly butcher with five children. That was incentive enough for Rowena to take her revenge out on Clara.
The third women, Elsa, was my favorite. She was in her forties, past the age the grooms were looking for. Fortunately for Elsa, there was a man who simply wanted a housekeeper. The position offered Elsa more than she ever dreamed she would find.
In addition to the women in this story there were some male characters I liked and didn’t like, plus a little girl I just loved. One of the things Kelly McNees does so well is build her characters. I liked that in The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott. But, she has outdone herself in In Need of a Good Wife. The characters in this book are multi-dimensional. They’re rich, deep, flawed, and real.
There is also a good plot and good writing backed by extensive research. I’ve read lots of mail-order bride stories. Don’t mistake this book as one of them. There wasn’t much about this story that matched those stories. This is a literary, historical novel in which the story line includes matching frontier grooms with unknown brides. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year.
Thanks to the publisher for my review copy.