Summary and book reviews of The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

The 19th Wife

A Novel

By David Ebershoff

The 19th Wife
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  • Hardcover: Aug 2008,
    528 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2009,
    528 pages.

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Book Summary

Faith, I tell them, is a mystery, elusive to many, and never easy to explain.

Sweeping and lyrical, spellbinding and unforgettable, David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife combines epic historical fiction with a modern murder mystery to create a brilliant novel of literary suspense.

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 a family’s polygamous history is revealed, including how a young woman became a plural wife.

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 and faith.

I

TWO WIVES

The 19th Wife

Preface to the First Edition

In the one year since I renounced my Mormon faith, and set out to tell the nation the truth about American polygamy, many people have wondered why I ever agreed to become a plural wife. Everyone I meet, whether farmer, miner, railman, professor, cleric, or the long-faced Senator, and most especially the wives of these-everyone wants to know why I would submit to a marital practice so filled with subjugation and sorrow. When I tell them my father has five wives, and I was raised to believe plural marriage is the will of God, these sincere people often ask, But Mrs. Young-how could you believe such a claim?  

Faith, I tell them, is a mystery, elusive to many, and never easy to explain.  

Now, with the publication of this autobiography, my enemies will no doubt suspect my motives. Having survived attempts on both my life and character, however, I stand unconcerned by their assaults. I have chosen to commit my memories to the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The first part of the novel, Two Wives, contains prefaces to two very different books. What did you think when you started reading The 19th Wife? Which story interested you the most?

  2. Ann Eliza Young says, Faith is a mystery. How does Ebershoff play with this metaphor? What are the mysteries in The 19th Wife? What does the novel say about faith?

  3. What are your impressions of Ann Eliza Young, and how do those impressions change over the course of the novel? Do you trust her as a narrator?

  4. Brigham Young was one of the most dynamic and complex figures in nineteenth-century America. How does the novel portray him? Do you come to understand his deep convictions? In the story of his marriage to Ann Eliza, he essentially gets the last word. Why...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
New York Times - Janet Maslin

There is a man who explains how he managed to have three wedding nights in three weeks. There are women casting light on what justified and reinforced their faith in all-powerful male prophets. But this creates an exhausting cacophony. Mr. Ebershoff clearly had the doggedness to invent many voices. What he didn’t have — or want, given the book’s deliberate epistolary nature — was a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

San Francisco Chronicle - Dan Cryer

The attack on polygamy by a Mormon apostate, Ann Eliza, is instrumental, when the church finally renounces it in 1890, in preserving it from the nation's wrath. The novel's gay men are straight arrows, committed to responsible relationships, while its heterosexual men are savage creatures of lust. Religion and sex paired, it seems, equals passion squared.

The Seattle Times - Richard Wallace

Regrettably, Jordon's contemporary story offers little of the spiritual complexity of Ann Eliza's saga. As a mystery it is totally without suspense, and the characters, other than Jordon (who has a healthy sense of the absurd), are not well-developed or compelling. Sometimes, one good story is all you need.

The Washington Post.

The greatest triumph is the way all this material, though it's focused on the peculiarities of Mormonism -- devout and heretical, ancient and modern -- illuminates the larger landscape of faith.

Kirkus Reviews

Reminiscent of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose in scope and ambition, though the narrative sometimes drags.

Publishers Weekly

[E]ssential reading for anyone seeking understanding of the subject.

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