It's been awhile since I read a 500-plus-page book that wasn't written by J.K. Rowling, so I wanted to get an early start on reading The 19th Wife for a blog tour, just in case it took awhile. I needn't have worried - this was a very fast-moving 500 pages, in more ways than one. David Ebershoff has ambitiously blended historical fiction, murder mystery, and social commentary in interwoven stories of plural marriages divided by over a century - and the two primary stories actually are connected, although the connection isn't apparent until well into the novel.
I was immediately pulled into Jordan Scott's present-day story, and found his narrative voice fully believable. 20-year-old Jordan was born and raised with a hundred siblings in a small Utah town where the illegal practice of polygamy has never ended, but he was excommunicated and exiled from the community at the age of fourteen. However, when he gets a phone call telling him that his mother has been arrested for murdering his father, there's no way he can't go back home and try to figure out what really happened.
Jordan's story is woven between a story of the founding prophets of the Mormon (Latter-day Saints, or LDS) Church, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and one of its first families, the Webbs. Their daughter Ann Eliza would eventually marry Brigham Young - as would many other women. The practice of "celestial" or "plural marriage" was one of the things that truly set the Mormons apart - in order to ensure salvation and attaining heaven, men were expected to have multiple wives, at the same time. These marriages were strictly religious ceremonies - while the practice was outside the law, the law turned a blind eye to such things in the Utah Territory, most of which was in the hands of Mormons anyway.
Ann Eliza and Jordan's mother have one thing in common - they're both 19th wives. Ebershoff drew and expanded on Ann Eliza's own memoir, Wife No. 19, in the historical portion of the novel. This memoir was instrumental in both stirring up legal action against polygamous marriages and in the LDS Church's renunciation of the "celestial marriage" doctrine. However, there were some Mormons who vehemently disagreed with this change, since it went against the teachings of the founding prophets, and they splintered away from their church. Some of them still live in small, remote towns in the Southwest where they continue to practice plural marriage today...and Jordan comes from one of those towns.
I had a hard time stepping away from The 19th Wife - it completely pulled me in, and I grabbed every available chunk of time to read it. At first I thought I'd be more interested in the murder mystery, largely because I found Jordan's voice so compelling, but as it happened, the historical novel was equally fascinating - and Ann Eliza was a compelling narrator too. I was very impressed by Ebershoff's use of distinct narrative voices and unconventional techniques - facsimile historical documents, letters, and Wikipedia pages are all part of the story. The novel as a whole is ripped-from-the-headlines contemporary in its themes, with a page-turning plot and vivid, memorable characters. It's a thought-provoker and would make for excellent book-club discussion.