The 19th Wife

Written by David Ebershoff
Review by Phyllis T. Smith

If you are contemplating a polygamous lifestyle, this novel will talk you out of it. The author wants us to know that plural marriage creates heartbreak for women and coarsens the character of men. There is never enough money or love to go around.

The 19th Wife has two plotlines, unrelated except that the Mormon faith and polygamy figure in both. One, set in the 1800s, is a fictionalization of the true story of Ann Eliza Young, nineteenth wife of Brigham Young. It begins before she is born, with her mother’s youthful conversion to Mormonism, and recounts decades of Mormon history through first-person accounts by Ann Eliza and other characters. Ann Eliza eventually rebels against “celestial marriage” and becomes a public figure who crusades against polygamy. Her saga alternates with a contemporary murder mystery in which a young man tries to clear his mother, who is accused of murdering his father. The Mormon Church, of course, abandoned plural marriage long ago, but his parents were members of a polygamous cult claiming to uphold true Mormonism.

The novel’s cover, depicting a possibly nude young woman, is the most erotic thing about it. When characters are seized by passion, it is religious passion. The history of the settlement of Utah is riveting and highly dramatic. One sympathizes with Ann Eliza, pressured into entering marriage with Brigham Young and desperate to escape it. However, Young is surprisingly complex, no cardboard villain but, for all his deep flaws, a visionary leader. The modern-day whodunit has some fascinating characters and held my interest. But the great mystery in this novel is the sudden genesis of a new religious faith.