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19th Wife (Ebershoff) - Book Reviews

Book Reviews
[Ebershoff's] great collage of a novel mixes the early history of the Mormon Church with the story of a modern-day murder in a breakaway Mormon cult. Readers of Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer's bestseller about the violent beginnings of Mormonism in the early 19th century and a double murder carried out by Mormon fundamentalists in 1984, will recognize this mingling of old and new. But Ebershoff has produced a different kind of book. For one thing, he's made up his modern-day adventure and fictionalized the historical record to shape his own ends. And more important, he's produced a novel that poses engaging challenges for the faithful in any denomination without discounting the essential value of faith. The result is a book packed with historical illumination, unforgettable characters and the deepest questions about the tenacity of belief.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


Despite the high hurdles Ebershoff has erected, the novel flows surprisingly well…In a less talented writer's hands, The 19th Wife could have turned into a Rube Goldberg contraption. But in the end the multiplicity of perspectives serves to broaden Ebershoff's depiction not only of polygamy, but also of the people whose lives it informs. And this gives his novel a rare sense of moral urgency.
Louisa Thomas - New York Times


This ambitious third novel tells two parallel stories of polygamy. The first recounts Brigham Young's expulsion of one of his wives, Ann Eliza, from the Mormon Church; the second is a modern-day murder mystery set in a polygamous compound in Utah. Unfolding through an impressive variety of narrative forms—Wikipedia entries, academic research papers, newspaper opinion pieces—the stories include fascinating historical details. We are told, for instance, of Brigham Young's ban on dramas that romanticized monogamous love at his community theatre; as one of Young's followers says, "I ain't sitting through no play where a man makes such a cussed fuss over one woman." Ebershoff demonstrates abundant virtuosity, as he convincingly inhabits the voices of both a nineteenth-century Mormon wife and a contemporary gay youth excommunicated from the church, while also managing to say something about the mysterious power of faith.
The New Yorker


This sweeping epic is a compelling and original work set in 1875, when one woman attempts to rid America of polygamy. Ebershoff intertwines his tale with that of a 20th-century murder mystery in Utah, allowing the two stories to twist and turn into a marvelous literary experience. With such a sprawling tale to relate, a few narrators (Kimberly Farr, Rebecca Lowman, Arthur Morey and Daniel Passer) divide up the roles and deliver a solid, professional reading, true to Ebershoff's prose.
Publishers Weekly


Ebershoff (Pasadena, 2002, etc.) takes a promising historical premise and runs with it-perhaps a couple of dozen pages too long. He juxtaposes the world of modern polygamous families down on the remote Utah-Arizona line with the life of a junior wife of 19th-century Mormon patriarch Brigham Young. Junior in terms of both age and pecking order, Annie Young didn't much like the gig; she renounced life as a plural wife and broke from the church to publish a book about the horrors of polygamy. Her story inspired much antipathy among Young's anti-Mormon neighbors; Ebershoff borrows elsewhere from history to recapitulate a San Francisco newspaper's condemnation of Brigham Young as "a confidence man in the grand tradition of the hoodwinkers of the West." Meanwhile, in the present, a young Mormon man begins to examine the life he is falling away from, returning to the fictitious town of Mesadale, with its "few hundred houses now, warehouses for a family of seventy-five." (That would be Colorado City, Ariz., in real life-a place that hnineteeas recently made national news for its polygamous customs.) Things are not as placid and well ordered as they seem in the red-rock plateau country. Young Jordan's mom, one of several wives, has apparently shot dear old dad as he was simultaneously gambling and recruiting new companionship online. As for Jordan—well, he's a mess, doing decidedly unsaintly things in order to keep body and soul together. Many histories intertwine in these pages, and many voices are heard from, ranging from the stately cadences of Victorian steel-nib prose to the most modern lingo. Apostasy and self-discovery ensue. Reminiscent of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose in scope and ambition, though the narrative sometimes drags.
Kirkus Reviews




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