Book Review: The Lonely Polygamist

by Rebekah Benoit

9498875I often feel a fleeting moment of sympathy for my husband, as I watch him trying his best to read the paper while our three young daughters clamour for his attention. He’s alone in a sea of women of varying ages, all vying for his attention – “Dad, Dad, watch me! Watch me!,” “Dad, I need help with my homework!,” “Honey, can you fix the leaky tap upstairs when you get a minute?” – and I’m sure at times the need to be all things to everyone can be quite overwhelming. But it’s a fleeting moment of sympathy, as I said. After all, moms have it just as rough, but at least there’s some solidarity and strength in numbers.
Imagine, then, the challenge of raising not three, but 28 children? And balancing the needs of one not one wife, but four? This is the reality of Golden Richards, the polygamous father and husband to an enormous brood of children and wives.
Golden’s life is falling apart. His construction business has gradually withered, even as his family continues to grow. His four wives, perhaps not surprisingly, are as far from “sisters” as one can imagine. Beverly, his first wife, struggles to maintain her position of power and control over the family by exerting militant discipline, while Rose, his third wife, slips closer and closer to a nervous breakdown. Trish, the youngest of the four wives, still grieves quietly for her stillborn son, but her overstretched husband can offer her no comfort; she’s lucky to catch a glimpse of him every couple of weeks.
The children, all 28 of them, have taken advantage of their mothers’ infighting to form rival factions, constantly vying for a scrap of attention or a kind word from their largely absent father. Rusty, an 11-year old on the verge of adolescence, wears the mantle of family black sheep and troublemaker, always the scapegoat whenever trouble crops up amongst the children.
Amongst this swirling chaos of wives, children and houses, Golden finds himself adrift. He spends more and more time on the road, working at a faraway construction job constructing a seniors home, or so he has told his family. In reality, Golden is constructing a brothel, a job that fills him with a deep sense of shame even as it provides him with the first frisson of excitement and joy he’s felt in years.
Golden has fallen in love with the wife of the brothel owner, a pretty Guatemalan woman named Huila. As his midlife crisis deepens, he finds himself drawn more and more to Huila, spending less and less time at home with his children and overwrought with guilt over his failings as a husband. Escaping from the maelstrom of his family life allows him to put off grieving the tragic death of one of his daughters and the stillbirth of a son, but the situation with Huila also threatens to put Golden and his entire family at risk from the wrathful jealousy of her husband.
I loved this book from start to finish. Brady Udall has a unique perspective on Mormonism. While not from a polygamous background himself, he grew up in a large Mormon family and attended Brigham Young University, and this intimate understanding of the quirks and values and Mormon culture has allowed him to bring this large and complex family to brilliant life with empathy and pathos. The characters are real, multifaceted and utterly human, and although I, like many other readers I suspect, was equal parts fascinated and disturbed by the idea of a polygamous family, I found the characters’ struggles for belonging and love resonated with me.
This book was laugh-out-loud hilarious. I found myself regularly reading selections to my husband, because they were just too hilarious not to share. When Trish, in attempt to spice up her moribund love life with Golden, makes use of a wad of gum with tragic results, you can’t help but down tools and have a good, long laugh. This book is full of wry wit, acerbic humour and lingering sadness. It’s a must-read!
5 teacups