Book Review : The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Published by Transworld Publishers Black Swan, 606 pages
Available on Amazon / Barnes & Noble / The Book Depository


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.

We were appalled when we first learned about the polygamous life practiced by the Latter-Day Saints in Utah. We were shocked and horrified, but there is no denial that we were curious about their so-called religious duty, as claimed by the Prophet who leads the people - how many wives did he have in total? And was the practice of polygamy like the Prophet said, God's will or was it merely a camouflage? An excuse for the Prophet's inability to rein his animal within?

In The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff presents a fictional tale which resonates with Ann Eliza Young's experience in polygamous marriage, although it basically tells a different story. Our protagonist Jordan Scott, is a 'lost boy' - someone excommunicated by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, all because he holds hands with his step-sister, Queenie, whom he views as a sister, confidante and friend. Later, when he is older, he learns about her mother's imprisonment, and realizes that she is accused of murdering his father. He decides to visit his mother, and later embarks on a journey to clear her name.

In between the Jordan's story, the author inserted Ann Eliza's memoir, within which some of the deepest secrets of polygamy are revealed. I have a slight feeling that Jordan's story is not the main point of the story as Ann Eliza's story takes place more often. Jordan's tale is more like a side dish to Ann Eliza's main course.

Since she was young, Ann Eliza's wit and intuition already made her question the legality of the Prophet's rule. This was what she thought when viewing a religious play, which very much opposes the other Sisters' (Brigham's many wives) reactions:

Why is Eve wearing a horse-hair wig? I didn't realize Satan knew the Scottish jig. --- page 289

Brigham's unusually huge sexual appetite and interest in young, pretty girls already made me uncomfortable, but I was even repulsed by his atrocities when I learned of his acts of incest:

He (Brigham) was known to marry more than one step-daughter. --- page 295

Ann Eliza's father, Chauncey Webb previously reacted vigorously towards Brigham's decision of making polygamy one of their policies. He claimed that he loved one person only, that was his wife and rejected Brigham's order to take another wife. But midway through, he gave up resisting and married Lydia, their house caretaker. Somewhere in his mid-years, Chauncey took three wives in a week. Ann Eliza's words expertly summarizes her disappointment in her father's actions and view on polygamy:

"... I suppose my greatest disappointment has been realizing my father, like Joseph and Brigham before him, tried to shroud his passions in the mantle of religion. He used God to defend his adultery." --- page 253

Meanwhile, Jordan's quest of rescuing her mother from a crime that she never committed was filled with unexpected discoveries. He received help from many people who later became his good friends. He also found his true love in Tom. Just to make a note, I was at first a little confused with Jordan's identity. But after some time, I realized that he was a boy.

David Ebershoff's The 19th Wife is a book that expertly reveals the lives of the women and children in a polygamous society and points out precisely how blind faith can backfire on a person's life. It also shows the power of words - especially words spoken by a man that claims to be God's appointed leader on Earth. David Ebershoff uses numerous perspectives to tell this story to provide an unbiased view on the topic of polygamy.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading The 19th Wife, as it was both entertaining and enlightening in many ways. Now that I've read this book, I have a greater understanding regarding the practice of polygamy, and how it affects the society. If you're interested in learning more about polygamy or Mormonism in general, or have always enjoyed reading well-researched historical fiction, don't hesitate to pick up this book.

Rating: 4.000

Note of Thanks
Many thanks to Transworld Publishers for providing me a review copy!

About The Author
David Ebershoff
David Ebershoff is the author of four books of fiction, including The Danish Girl, The Rose City, and Pasadena. His most recent novel is the international bestseller, The 19th Wife. He has won a number of awards, including the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Lambda Literary Award, the Ferro-Grumley Award for excellence in gay and lesbian literature. His books have been translated into eighteen languages to critical acclaim.

8 creative remarks:

Dolly Madison said...

Hm! Interesting. I believe that I've read about this book in a catalogue (Costco, maybe). :D

whirlofwings said...

I've seen this book in bookstores before. Your review makes me want to read it. I'll make sure to check my local library next time!

bn100 said...

I enjoyed your honest review. This sounds like an interesting read.

Hanifah Husein Hizbullah said...

Wow thank you for the review! I NEED to read this ;)

CHA0Sgirl said...

Sounds interesting! Nice review! :)

dunja1988 said...

interesting book! :)

acupofcoffee andafairytale said...


i just picked up this book after reading the goodreads gist. after reading your review i cant wait to start with it!

great review!

Marlene Detierro said...

Ebershoff has woven these two tales together magnificently. I can't claim to have known much about the Mormon faith, its history, or any current issues in the religion, but I was equally fascinated by both stories being told. I realize there's a limit to what a person can learn from a fictional work, but this novel appears to have been meticulously researched. (There's a great author's note at the end.) It's a hefty book, but well-written, compelling, exotic, and more than anything one of a story.

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