Book Review: The 19th Wife

The 19th Wife

David Ebershoff

Random House Trade Paperbacks

544 pages

The 19th Wife is told with two separate but parallel narratives.  The first portion is narrated by Jordan, a young gay man who had been abandoned by his mother on the side of the freeway a few years earlier because she believed that God was telling her do so.  Jordan has never looked back and has completely abandoned the Mormon faith but he returns to Utah because his mother, wife #19, has been accused of murdering Jordan ’s father.  Even after returning home to aid his mother in jail, Jordan attempts to escape his family and faith but is ultimately unable to leave his mother.

The other narrative is the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, one of the leaders of the Mormon faith.  Ann Eliza has grown up in the Mormon faith but she has always been aware of her mother’s disapproval on polygamy, despite the fact that her mother is in a polygamous marriage.  However, Ann Eliza is eventually coerced in to marrying Brigham Young.  Unfortunately for him, Ann Eliza flees the marriage after a few years and begins speaking out against Brigham and polygamy all over the country, drawing negative attention towards Mormonism.

I loved Ann Eliza’s account—unlike Jordan ’s sections, Ann Eliza’s story is not narrated entirely by her and it also added a lot of historical elements.  Ann Eliza really was married to Brigham Young and she really did abandon him and become a political figure fighting to end polygamy.  Her story is told through her autobiography, as well as her father’s autobiography.  The reader is aware that Ann Eliza’s story is biased and one-sided—she is unable to hold herself accountable for her own actions.  This is made all the more interesting by the fact that some of the story is even narrated by Brigham himself.  In the end you are unsure of whom to believe and what really occurred.  Despite the ambiguity, The 19th Wife is obviously not portraying polygamy in a generous light and polygamy is thoroughly denounced.

As for Jordan ’s sections, I have to admit I was not impressed.  The whole attempt seemed juvenile to me and I couldn’t really sympathize with Jordan because he seemed more two-dimensional to me.  I understand Ebershoff’s point in making him gay, but it seemed like he was the token Mormon gay guy and that made it even harder for me to take that part of the story seriously.  The mystery of who really killed his father was lackluster for me as well.  Although it was a mystery and Jordan was sleuthing to attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together, the suspense was never really there for me.  I didn’t really care who killed his father or why or how, etc etc.

In the end, I thought The 19th Wife was phenomenal in part and deeply flawed in part.  I love the idea of a duel narrative and I think the structure would have worked so well for this book if Jordan ’s narrative had been more refined and believable.  I would still recommend this one though because despite the issues I had with it, The 19th Wife is an engaging read and very educational if you are not too familiar with the Mormon faith, not to mention mine is the only review I have read thus far (I think) that is not completely loving this book.

Other Reviews:

Musings of a Bookish Kitty

Becky’s Book Reviews

Devourer of Books

Caribous Mom

She is too Fond of Books

Presenting Lenore

Fyrefly’s Book Blog

Capricious Reader

I received this book from the published for review.

This book counts towards the GLBT challenge hosted by Amanda at The Zen Leaf.

13 Responses

  1. I know I enjoyed this book, but I definitely preferred the historical half to the modern day half. That’s just typical for me, so I don’t remember if I thought it was down to inherent flaws in the book or just to personal preference.

  2. Sometimes I feel like I’m the lone blogger who doesn’t want to read this book. It seemed like books about Mormons was the “it” topic last year (when in actuality there were probably only 2 or 3 released) and I ignored them all.

  3. One issue I frequently have with dual narrative stories is that one voice is more compelling/interesting to me than the other. It sounds like you had that same issue here… I’d probably skim through the Jordan sections if they were so lackluster!

  4. I’m one of those people who loved this book. I enjoyed all of the multiple perspectives – Jordan, Ann, Kelly, etc. – but I can see how Jordan’s would be the least thrilling.

  5. I usually enjoy dual narratives, but it seems like one often overshadows the other. Still, I’m intrigued with this one…

  6. Thanks for linking to my review! — Yes, I really liked the book overall, but do agree that I was more taken by the historical aspect (and loved the inclusion of letters and diary entries, etc.). Learning about Ebershoff’s research in writing the modern story line is fascinating — that business of leaving notes in the dairy section of the local grocery store is true, like a twist on the underground railroad.

  7. For an interesting look at some of the history of the polyagamists, you might want to check out HEYDAY by Kurt Anderson. And for a more satisfying modern account, the YA novel THE CHOSEN ONE by Carol Lynch Williams.

  8. […] here: Book Review: The 19th Wife « ReviewsbyLola's Blog This entry was posted in Books and tagged house, posted-on-june, random-house, review, […]

  9. I have passed on this one before; but, after reading Ebershoff’s “The Danish Girl,” I thought I might go back and read this one after all. Thanks for the honest review–I’ll go into it with a more realistic expectation.

  10. I really enjoyed this book as well, but did have issues with a few parts myself. Your review is marvelous.

  11. I found your blog while surfing cyberspace. I am still reading 19th Wife. I am almost done. The only comment I have so far, I like the dual narrative. I am totally engrossed then it goes back to the previous story. I get kind of angry. I don’t know if this happens because of the dual narrative. Or it sometimes works with a novel and sometimes not.. After this one I would like to try another novel with a double narrative to see if it works or not. I am enjoying reading the historical accounts. But besides, I am doing a little research on my own. I am enjoying it overall. This is a fast read even though it is 500 pages. I had this book on my bookshelf when the book first came out. I wish I read it then instead of waiting.

  12. I’m confused – is the Jordan part pure fiction and the other part historical fiction or nonfiction? I thought this was a memoir. Huh. I think this was on my tbr but I seriously doubt I’ll ever get to it.

  13. […] Reviews By Lola Share this:Email Pin ItShare on TumblrPrint This entry was posted on April 12, 2012, in Book Review, Bookies Review and tagged Bookies, Review. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment […]

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