Is The Bishop’s Wife a packet of sociological case studies or a novel of intricately-woven psychological narratives? A little of both, I think. Mette Ivie Harrison generates a fully-realized, twenty-first century, Utah milieu. She populates that world with a cast of characters drawn from a wide range of contemporary Mormon men and women. Her narrator is Linda Wallheim, wife of Kurt, the well-respected bishop of his ward. Linda’s role is to support her husband, to be there when he needs her and when his ward members need her. Her duties are not, under any circumstances, to behave improperly or to follow her own “inner convictions” when her instincts deviate from what Kurt deems “appropriate.”
The novel opens when a young Mormon father insists that his wife has abruptly left him and their daughter, without warning and without taking any of her belongings. Linda suspects foul play on the part of the young man, while Kurt is more trusting of a fellow Mormon male. As the novel develops, more couples enter The Bishop’s Wife. Their stories disclose other patriarchal complexities. With each new portrayal, Linda confronts her own life in parallel, musing constantly about her role as a Mormon wife (of the bishop) and mother (of grown-up children). What lies ahead for the remainder of her life? How might she need to adjust? And, most importantly, how might she make a difference? Especially for the women in their ward?
Harrison does an excellent job of portraying Linda’s psychic dilemmas. Linda loves her husband, has always supported him, and has no doubts about her own religious convictions. Even so, the bishop’s wife has questions. Harrison deftly manages Linda’s plight, allowing her character to walk a tightrope between indoctrination (as she has been trained all her life) and having a mind of her own (as she is developing while she works through questions surrounding the young mother’s disappearance).
The Bishop’s Wife is part murder mystery, too. Linda’s curiosity leads her to a number of awkward confrontations and surprising revelations. Some of the fictional twists are totally unexpected, so this is a novel that keeps the reader on edge. As I read, I constantly puzzled about what really happened and wondered what would finally turn out to be true. Included along with the main mystery are the stories of other Mormon couples, plus Linda and Kurt’s own marital story. And here’s what leads me back to my initial question. Is The Bishop’s Wife a packet of sociological case studies or a novel of intricately-woven psychological narratives?
A little of both, I repeat. In some respects, this novel does read like a series of social work investigations. Personalities are filtered through Linda’s imagination, and often she is more clinical than perceptive. She sees surfaces more than depths, and that takes away from the emotional impact of The Bishop’s Wife. The characters are analyzed, rather than deeply felt. On the other hand, Linda’s narration is totally intriguing. I enjoyed the book, and I especially appreciated the religious balancing acts. The Mormon tone struck me as right on key. Linda’s faith is absolute; the devil is only in the details as these stories unfold. While I have some reservations about the emotional texture of this novel, I must add that a friend who also read The Bishop’s Wife disagrees with me. She felt much closer to Linda’s interior thoughts, and found her sensitivity much more believable than I did. Two readers; two opinions; decide for yourselves. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Mette Ivie Harrison: The Princess and the Hound; The Princess and the Bear; Tris & Lizzie; The Princess and the Horse; The Princess and the Snowbird; Mira, Mirror; An Ideal Boyfriend; The Rose the Throne; The Queen’s Truth; The Monster in Me; Apprentices.