Review: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

the 19th wifeThe 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Published June 2nd, 2009 by Random House

Synopsis and cover image from the Goodreads book page

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It is 1875, and Ann Eliza Young has recently separated from her powerful husband, Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon Church. Expelled and an outcast, Ann Eliza embarks on a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. A rich account of her family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how both she and her mother became plural wives. Yet soon after Ann Eliza’s story begins, a second exquisite narrative unfolds–a tale of murder involving a polygamist family in present-day Utah. Jordan Scott, a young man who was thrown out of his fundamentalist sect years earlier, must reenter the world that cast him aside in order to discover the truth behind his father’s death. And as Ann Eliza’s narrative intertwines with that of Jordan’s search, readers are pulled deeper into the mysteries of love, family, and faith


Rating: 3 star



For anyone who doesn’t know, I used to belong to the Mormon church.  I was born into it (4th generation actually) and lived it until I was around 18 and then removed myself from church membership at 19.  So, in a sense, I can identify with Ann Eliza and her apostasy from the church.  I may have left for different reasons but I was surprised how many were the same.  This also left with me a rather biased view of the church and their teachings.  I was still interested in this book for the story it presented and tried very hard not to let my own biases color this review.  But I feel a tiny disclaimer is warranted just in case I didn’t quite succeed.

This book attempts to tell two stories simultaneously.  First is the story of Ann Eliza, 19th wife to the 2nd prophet of the LDS church Brigham Young.  It tells the story of her disenchantment with the church and later her divorce from Brigham and apostasy over the issue of polygamy.  She later goes on a personal crusade to end polygamy in the United States for good.  The second story is the story of Jordan Scott.  His mother is the 19th wife of a polygamist man in a fringe branch of the LDS church, which branched off over the issue of polygamy, and she is arrested and accused of murdering her husband.

Now, I found both of these stories interesting but I wasn’t entirely happy with the way they were handled in the book.  Ann Eliza’s narrative overtook the large majority of the pages and quite frankly it wasn’t the most interesting thing going on.  Anyone with even a tiny bit of knowledge of Mormon history knows how Ann Eliza’s crusade ends.  They know that the church banned polygamy from practice in order to coincide with US law.  We know that her crusade was only partially effective since fringe elements in the church branched off from the main church and still practice polygamy to this day.  These are all things we KNOW happened, so Ann Eliza’s story is not surprising but only mildly interesting.  What was surprising was Jordan Scott, a young man cast out of this fringe group (called the Firsts) for holding hands with his stepsister.  His mother drives him to the highway and puts him out on the road to fend for himself at 15.  He is then pulled back into the sect when his mother is arrested for murdering his father year later, and he finds that he believes her to be innocent.  We follow Jordan on his quest to discover the truth of his father’s demise.

Although I felt that Ann Eliza’s story got far more coverage than it needed to, I can’t say that I disliked what I read.  The only part that got on my nerves was when we read something from her memoir and then a chapter or so later are told the SAME THING as someone tells Jordan Scott about it.  I felt like this was a forced attempt to connect the two stories when it wasn’t necessary.  We already had the connection of polygamy, the Firsts being founded by Ann’s brother, and both being the 19th wife.  We didn’t need anything else to be intrigued so it felt forced to put all these connections between the stories in there.  The other part of Ann’s narrative that I had issue with was that it got repetitive all by itself.  We hear her talk about her lecturing on multiple occasions, we hear about her marriage from not only her but her former husband AND her son.  It got cumbersome and took up way too many pages, meanwhile I was frothing at the mouth to hear about what Jordan was doing!

Jordan’s story, unfortunately, got neglected.  We kind of think he has a boyfriend (Roland) who is kind of an asshole, but he so readily hooks up with goody goody Tom that I wasn’t quite sure what was going on.  Johnny was a delightful character who added some much needed levity to this otherwise very heavy story.  All of the other characters in Jordan’s narrative I really had no feelings for because none of them were fleshed out very much, so I couldn’t have any feelings toward them one way or the other.  I feel like the author relied too much on the reputation of sects like The Firsts and that the reader just automatically understood the interactions.  Here’s a hint, we didn’t and we wanted to!  The ending of Jordan’s narrative took me by surprise.  I honestly never saw it coming, mostly because I never had enough information to see it coming.

Also SPOILER!!!!

Minor grip about the title.  Neither of these women was actually the 19th wife.  Popularly they were known as the 19th wives, but neither actually were in reality.  I don’t know why that bugged me, but it did.  Overall, it was an interesting story and the ending saved it for me on many accounts. A good investment of my time, but it could have done with a few hundred pages less.