Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review: Sweet Land Of Bigamy

          Helen Motes is, above all, a survivor.  Fatherless and with an alcoholic mother, Helen lived a fractured, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Utah.   As a sixteen-year old girl, she met and married an older man, Larry, a solid respectable Mormon.  Helen’s marriage to Larry represented the stability she never experienced growing up.  But after ten years of marriage, during which Helen is forced to cope with the pain of infertility, Larry leaves for a two-year stint in Iraq, in full defiance of Helen’s fears and wishes.  
           Angry and heart-broken, Helen heads back to her childhood town in hopes of making amends with her alcoholic mother.  While there, she meets and falls in love with an Indian poet, who proposes marriage to her before she even has the chance to explain about her husband.  Her new lover is full of starry-eyed ideals about the world; through his eyes Helen is able to experience the wide-eyed wonder of childhood that she missed out on.  She marries her Indian suitor, expecting to quietly divorce her first husband while her second husband is in India tending to his dying mother.  And so Helen finds herself in the awkward position of being a bigamist - a woman married to two men.  
          Things quickly get very complicated as Helen finds herself unable to sever her emotional attachment to her first husband.  These husbands of hers fill two separate voids in her heart.  She loves the two of them, both in their own unique way.  The plot is original and surprising, with a lot of very unique characters; the people are flawed yet relatable.  The author made the wise decision to tell the story from a variety of different perspectives, rather than sticking to the point of view of one woman trying to decide between the two men that she loves.  By showing us the story through the eyes of many, the reader is drawn into a deeply textured and vivid portrait of a woman trying to make the best of a difficult circumstance.  
           This is a story about cobbling together a life out of broken remnants: a fractured childhood, absentee parents, a marriage of necessity, a marriage of impulse.  The author does not shy away from the difficult moments but handles them with such grace and such affection for her characters that the result is a truly heart-warming story about the ability of people to stick together in spite of their flaws.  

Sweet Land of Bigamy is available in both e-book and hardcover and can be bought at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, as well as your local independent bookstore.  I would also urge you to check out the author's webpage, as she is a fantastic writer - her essay "You Owe Me" was recently selected for the Best American Essays of 2012, and is, without a doubt, the best non-fiction essay I have read in a very long time.  


  1. Rachel,

    I liked your book review. It seems like lots of people have to figure out how to deal with lots of complicated things. I will ask my husband to read your review and see if he thinks it would be a good thing to read about.

    I made a very long comment on Julia's blog. It is too long to post again on your blog but interesting things like your book reviews and Bridget making a bunch of links every Friday to funny things or things that make you think helps me to go on thought trips when I am home and most of my jobs are done. Dometimes I tead while the laundry dries. I like reading and thinking, and reading fiction that lets me see how other tell stories. Since I got married and I was never very good at reading, I forgot that people can read the same thing but have different things that are important to them.

    If you read the comment on Julia's blog then you will understand why I am saying thank you for not ignoring me when I tried to start making comments. I am still scared to make comments but I read a lot more blogs. I want to find more nice and patient people so if I think about something I can be brave and say what I am thinking.


    1. Hi Tina,

      I'm glad you liked the review. It really was a good book, very beautifully written. And I have a soft spot for the book, as the author was one of my writing teachers! (She is also a very good teacher as well)

      I will make sure to check out Julia's blog. I was always timid about posting on blogs - I read them and enjoyed them but always felt weird making comments - until I started my own blog. Then I realized just how nice it is to hear from the people who read your work - it really does make bloggers happy. Even if they don't always reply, they are reading the comments.

      All the best,

  2. Thanks for the review! I confess I have a soft spot for stories that involve people loving more than one person. I'm off to check out "You Owe Me".

    1. "You Owe Me" will change your life. Not to be dramatic or anything but that was an essay that stuck in my mind long after reading it and made me really think about life.

  3. I have always said that Polygamy wou;d ne impossible for me, but polyandry might work. The only problem is that I am always attracted to men who are way to possesive to be able to "share."

    Is she doing a book tour? If she comes to Oregon, I know several independent bookstores that always are looking for new authors to spotlight. :-)

    1. Hi Julia! I'll be reading in Portland at Broadway Books on August 7! Would love to meet you. Miah

    2. Miah,

      I have it on my calendar. Hopefully the doctors will have me off of bedrest and I will be able to come. (They are kind of picky about following doctor's orders after spinal surgery.) Even if I can't go, I am having my mom send the info to all the MFA program at PSU. Portland has a great mix of non-nationwide-chain bookstores. There are so many great author readings both in the downtown area, but also in the suburbs, and farther out in smaller towns, that I think it other states wouldn't be able to survive. I live halfway up Mt Hood, near Welches, and our local bookstore had a three hour talk and then question and answer session with Ursula LeGuin.

      There were about 20 of us, so all of us got to ask wide ranging question about her Oregon series, which are nonfiction. My mother, who uses some of her short stories in teaching high school asked her to explain the origin thoughts behind one story. After answering the direct question, she at least another 15 minutes talk about inspiration for fiction and nonfiction short stories. I thought her insight that some groups of fictional characters just don't have a book in them, but are interesting enough that she wants to let them say something.

      About a third of us were hard core science fiction fans, and she was gracious about our questions. Basically all of our questions boiled down to, how did you come up with the idea for this story or that story. Most of her responses were basically; if a character starts talking to her, she figures she should listen to the voice of that person, or people, whose story could not be put on the current earth, so they must either belong to the future or another planet, or both. She said almost always the characters come first, and then they introduce her to their world.

      What struck me about an hour into the conversation, was how wonderful it is to have local bookstores create small islands of adventure. I have heard Ursula LeGuin speak at writing conferences, when I was a teenager. I have been to a couple of fund raisers where she spoke briefly, and allowed autographed copies of her work be sold or auction. In none of those settings were we able to simply talk and listen in a free flowing form. Taking a bathroom break part way through only made her more approachable and human. I could see why characters would come to her to tell them her stories.

      Every Sunday there is a new author or illustrator who comes to our little speck of a community. Most of the people are locals, but people regularly come from a couple hours away to listen to an author they particularly like.

      Anyway, that was a very long way around saying I am sure you will be welcomed with open arms. One of the things that was most interesting to me, that Ursula LeGuin addressed was the rise of online bookstores, especially Amazon and Barnes and Noble. She told us that she gets a slightly higher royalties from her books sold online, but that she won't do signed copies for them because she sees them as the worst influence on publishing. She told us, several times that she would rather have people buy her books used, at a smaller bookstore, or at Powell' because she would rather get no royalties, which is the case with used book sales, than to allow B&N or Amazon become the meta-publishers who squeeze out beginning or smaller market authors. If Amazon or B&N won't carry a book, most larger publishers won't take the chance to publish it.

      Okay, I have rambled enough. Rachel will tell you that I ramble when I am just about ready to have my next dose of pain meds. Hopefully my back will be healed and I will be back to normal soon. Hopefully by the time you are in town. ;-)


  4. If you want to buy the book at, you can find it here:

    1. Thanks for the link. I didn't mean to leave Powell's out of the list but I am not as familiar with Powell's as the others.

    2. No problem, I was just being a smart ass. I think the pain must have my sense of humor off.

    3. Commenting while narced out? I guess I can't hold any of your comments against you (which means you can have a lot of fun with that one!)


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