"I'm beginning to think that with you the truth sprints about as far as the barn and the lie walks on forever." ~ Morgan Longstreet, In Want of a Wife
Jo Goodman is a writer whose books I hoard. That's why this review is coming almost a year after the book's release. I fell in love with her writing in The Compass Club series and have been a fan of hers since then. If you read the blurb, this book sounds like hundreds of other books. But open it up and begin reading and you'll get nuanced characters; intelligent, eloquent writing; her signature dry humor; and a storyteller almost without equal.
Despite the quote above hinting at secrets, lies, and deceptions, Jane Middlebourne and Morgan Longstreet of In Want of a Wife don't have a problem with honesty. It's trust that's the real issue. Lack of it, to be more precise. It isn't surprising, really, when neither has ever had any reason to place their confidence in anyone's character, ability, strength, emotions, or truth other than their own. Their first face-to-face meeting does nothing to dispel either one's misgivings and mutual feelings of misrepresentation. He was expecting his mail-order bride to be a woman far more sturdy and strong, to be a helpmate, a partner, on his ranch. Instead, Jane appears appallingly 'insubstantial, even fragile.' She was expecting someone not quite so taciturn and irascible. And possibly with hair that did not resemble a 'lighted fuse.' To be fair, the photo Jane mailed to Morgan is deceptive, though not on purpose and not with her knowledge. I'll just say Morgan had very good reason to expect a young woman of 'bold features', 'broad across the chest and shoulders' instead of a tall but delicate-appearing woman. Lack of food and the migraine Jane is suffering upon arrival at Bitter Springs only adds to that 'woman who needs coddling' appearance. But Jane soon sets Morgan straight on several points and with a good dose of humor.
'How old you are doesn't matter, Miss Middlebourne. I wanted a stronger wife.'
(...) 'Do you need your wife to pull a plow? Don't you have animals for that?'
Morgan ducked his head and stared at the floor for a moment. He cleared his throat before he answered. 'No, Miss Middlebourne. I don't need my wife to pull a plow.' (47)
In Want of a Wife relies on its 'mail-order bride' trope to bring Jane and Morgan together, but in Jo Goodman's capable hands there's no rushed intimacy, no insta-lust, to detract from their very believable slow-building romance. I loved how Jane and Morgan come to know each other in spite of enforced intimacy. The foundation of trust is laid, one brick at a time, slowly and surely, beginning with a surprising 24-hour cooling off period between their first meeting and any possible wedding since both are not what each other expected from their correspondence. Morgan learns Jane is strong-willed with a core of steel, capable, practical to a fault, a woman not used to frivolity or teasing. Jane learns Morgan, though not a 'godly' man, is a man of principles, hardworking, and possessing a surprisingly funny, dry wit. They both feel the need to lift the scales from each other's eyes before a marriage takes place. As Jane states very early on:
'It is in our nature to see what we want to see first and come to the truth later.' She hesitated, thoughtful. 'Or never come to it at all.' (73)
These two come to that truth exquisitely without any hurried gropings, without any manufactured artificial lust-inspired couplings, without any bogus misunderstandings or unbelievably contrived circumstances. Their eventual intimacy arrives from friendship, a genuine mutual liking and respect for each other, more of a slow burn than a flaming inferno. It was lovely to see them both begin to open up to each other, to learn to trust, to see each other clearly and honestly. Even after the marriage is consummated, neither is at the point of declaring undying love for the other.
'Do you regret becoming my wife?'
'(...) I was your wife before tonight,' she said. 'At least it seemed so to me.'
Jane refused to answer. Instead, she said, 'Tell me what there is to regret.'
'The absence of love, perhaps.'
That pricked her heart, but she knew it was true. Under the covers, she found his hand and took it. He did not try to pull away as she thought he might, even when she squeezed it. 'You will never convince me that of the pair of us, you are not the more romantic.' He snorted which made her chuckle. 'I saved all your letters. Sometimes I reread them.'
'Do you? Why?'
'Because sometimes, like now, you can't help but hold on to a dark thing so tightly it swallows your joy, and those letters remind me there is light in you. You would not have named this place Morning Star if that were not true.' (200-201)
As far as declarations of love, Morgan's was as funny as it was tender and delivered with a little prodding from his ranch hands - Jem, Jessop, Jake, and Max - over the breakfast table while they're teasing Morgan about his uncharacteristic indecisiveness.
Morgan picked up his coffee cup. He had it almost to his lips when he said: 'I love her.'
No one said anything.
Morgan looked at them over the rim of his cup. 'Well?'
Jessop glanced over his shoulder. 'Hell, boss, I reckon we all knew that.'
'Yeah,' Jem said. 'What made you say it?'
'It's the knots,' said Max. 'You've got them yourself, Jem. You should know they provoke a man to say peculiar things.'
'...Boss is hungry and talkin' out if his head.'
Morgan's mouth twisted to one side. 'You all had your fun? Jake, you have something you want to say?'
'Nope, but if you want to say it again, I guess that'd be all right. Sounds like you could use the practice.'
Morgan set his cup down. 'Does it?'
This time they all nodded.
He cleared his throat and rolled his neck. 'I love her.'
Jane stepped into the kitchen, a forefinger pressed against her lips.'Shh,' she whispered,'you'll wake her.' (272)
Secondary characters are almost as well developed as the two main characters. I fell in love with Finn and Rabbit, a pair of mischievous boys, in The Last Renegade and was glad to see both poking their inquisitive noses in everybody's business throughout the Bitter Springs series. Children in romance can be nothing more than plot moppets in the wrong hands, but not here. Not with Jo Goodman. Finn and Rabbit are like The Shadow - they know all, see all, hear all. And, er, tell all given half a chance. If there's evil in the hearts of men or women, they know it first. They enter a scene and easily steal it. An introduction to Finn and Rabbit always goes something like this:
'I am Miss Middlebourne,' she said, holding out her hand to Finn. 'And you are?'
'Carpenter Addison Collins,' Finn said. He took her hand and pumped it once. 'But everyone calls me Finn. I picked it out myself on account of I didn't cotton to the idea of being called Carp.'
'A sensible notion.'
'That's my brother over there. Rabbit. Cabot Theodore, but you see the problem, don't you?'
These two are knee deep in the events as they unfold toward the end, and their comic presence helps to alleviate some of the wrenching tension as Jane and Morgan go toe-to-toe with the villain(s). Finn and Rabbit are fearless even as they are separated at one point. Finn, in his customary fashion, shares his opinion on one of the villains' names.
Finn set his folded hands on the table with great aplomb and regarded the man who was charged with keeping them in the kitchen. 'So,' he said gravely, 'what sort of name is Dicks anyway? No villain should have a name that sounds like his man parts.' (325)
Jo Goodman captures the awkwardness between Jane and Morgan as they begin a life together, from simply addressing each other by their given names to learning how 'to dance in each other's space.' The secrets in both their pasts are not revealed in a rushed, ham-handed manner to each other or to the reader. Jo Goodman slowly peels back the layers of Morgan and Jane, setting a slower pace of gradual union, first with a physical and then an emotional bond, but with all the attendant insecurities and fears still at play between them. The narrative is beautifully woven so that a true partnership between Jane and Morgan is cemented by the time the villains make an appearance. 'Show, don't tell' is the best advice for any writer hoping to engage a reader on so many levels with their story, characters, hope for the outcome. Jo Goodman 'shows' expertly - in dialogue where what isn't said is almost as revealing as what is said, in the authentic flavor of a Western romance of steam engines, 'biscuit shooters', and the hard life of a working ranch, in characters whose flaws reveal their humanity, in the seemingly small details leading up to and culminating with the dramatic and satisfying ending.
In Want of a Wife isn't perfect by any means, but the small quibble I had with one element doesn't detract from my overall enjoyment of this Western historical romance. The quibble was more a small irritant, resulting in a small eye rolling moment. OK, maybe not so small. Early on Jane learns she will most likely be unable to bear children, but by the end she and Morgan get their prerequisite baby news which seems to be so prevalent in happy ever afters of most cardboard historical romance which this is NOT. The addition of 'Baby Makes Us Real Family' just makes me feel as if Jane could've bedded every single male citizen in Bitter Springs upstairs at the Pennyroyal Saloon without fear of pregnancy, but it was only going to be Morgan's manly, magical, infertility-defeating sperms that truly fixes that little problem. For two such finely drawn, unique characters, I was disappointed that it seemed necessary to tack on the miraculous infertility cure. In spite of that, In Want of a Wife is firmly on my 'In Case Of Fire' shelf.