When US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was asked how many First Ladies he would be bringing to the White House, he referred the interviewer to the Latter Day Saints' website. Multiple marriage has long been a subject of fascination for Americans, and in his new novel Brady Udall, himself a Mormon, explores what happens when a polygamist has an affair. In a sunnier read than David Ebershoff's recent bestseller, The 19th Wife, Udall takes the classic theme of family dysfunction and raises it by the power of ten.
Golden Richards is a normal dad, but with four wives and 28 children he has to spread himself thin. He can recall the names of his wives – Beverly, Nola, Rose and Trish – but can only remember his children's names by singing a list under his breath to the tune of "The Old Grey Mare". Not the chauvinist monster of religious scripture, Golden is a lanky, hesitant man largely managed by his womenfolk.
They in turn prove to be a kind and patient bunch, often left to beg Golden to "embrace his God-given patriarchal authority" and "make a decision once in a while". Left to wander around his various homes, Golden feels like "a vagrant or a ghost, easily forgotten and leaving no trace."
Golden's mid-life crisis is more complicated than most. Under pressure to take a fifth wife, and worried about his failing construction company – the novel is set during the economic downturn of the late 1970s – he takes a job adding an extension to a Nevada brothel. It's here that meets and falls in love with Huila, the wife of the owner of "Pussycat Manor". In a life where every moment of intimacy is pre-planned, Huila is a revelation, "different simply because he – he – had chosen her." But news soon gets out of the affair and hit-men are sent to Utah to threaten Golden's family.
At every turn, Udall plays with his readers' expectations of believers and non-believers, husbands and wives. There are no serious attempts to undermine Golden's creed. That this longish book is kept largely aloft by a structure of humorous conceits is an indication of the author's strengths as a storyteller. Not that there aren't moments of pathos – as in Ebershoff's novel, it's the children who find plural marriage hard to swallow. In the end, the novel is less a portrayal of an exceptional lifestyle than a conventional tale of middle-age temptation and redemption.