As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross
As one of the saddest books I've ever read, this one had me quite eager to get to the last chapter and end the pain. Not the pain of a bad book but the pain of a tormented main character, one so terribly inconsequential in her own mind that she never even gives us that most basic and personal piece of information about herself, a name. She remains throughout the book just her husband's wife, Mrs.
Mr. and Mrs. Bentley have just relocated to an unpromising little prairie town called Horizon, where he will be the pastor of a small church. The unfortunate thing (actually one of many) is that this particular minister of the gospel doesn't believe in God and hates standing in the pulpit every Sunday and lying. He does it only to earn a living, and because he doesn't have the courage to be what he wants - and has the talent - to be, an artist.
Their new town is miserably cold and barren in winter, miserably hot and barren in summer; the church members are judgmental, unkind people who rarely think of anyone but themselves except as topics for gossip; and the house provided as part of his painfully insufficient wage package is small, dilapidated and unattractive. This turns out to be a perfect setting for the excruciatingly strained relationship between the two of them. I know it sounds like I must be exaggerating, but it really is that bad. Again, not the book, but the situation.
The writing is good, the characters credible and the situation truer to life than is altogether comfortable. There were a couple of times when reading it that I found my mind wandering and I had to force it back to the narrative, but I don't see that as a flaw in this book. Everything about it, everything, reinforced the numb ache of Mrs. Bentley's life and her hopeless attempts to make a life with a man as unyielding as the climate itself.
The uncomfortable reality is that many people live this life. Different towns, different times, but the same feeling of invisibility, the same vulnerability to the impulses and inclinations of someone they love and believe they cannot live without, even in the face of the loved one's obvious lack of love in return. This woman made me feel anger because she wouldn't see her husband as the mean, selfish fraud that he was, then sadness because her pain was as deep and constant as the blood throbbing in her veins, and finally almost hopeless, because sometimes life just seems too, too hard.
In the end I found myself asking who the real coward was. Was it him for choosing the easier way, a life of lies that would poison his own soul and batter hers, or was it her, for giving in to the notion that she was better off being mistreated by the man she loved than living life without him? I have no answer.
Obviously I did not read this as a disinterested observer; I'm not sure any woman could. It's painful and sad, and disturbing on a raw emotional level. Still, it is a good book and one I'd recommend to most adult readers, with the possible exception of anyone dealing with depression or grief because it does leave you with a deep and lingering sense of melancholy.