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I Married a Dead Man Paperback – August 6, 2013
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I think the ending is interesting and morally responsible, but really, there could be another answer to the puzzle.
The pacing in the novel is remarkable. At first it almost stops as the girl stands in front of a door and later listens to the dial tone as she tries to reach her lover who has left her pregnant and alone. But then it picks up as the girl heads west on a train, meets a newlywed and her new husband who show her compassion. The train crashes and somehow the two switch places and the girl is summoned back east where she becomes Patrice, the rich girl.
I was also impressed by Woolrich's pronoun usage. He refers to the girl as "she", although she does have a name, Helen. He begins several sentences in a row with the word "she", doesn't worry about varying his paragraph beginnings. Yet, this doesn't bother the reader a bit. Later on when she switches places with the rich girl, she becomes Patrice, so I imagine Woolrich is saying something about social class.
The setting, The Great Depression, adds a lot to the story. When she dials her lover, the girl asks the operator for her nickel back because it's the only money she has. Her former lover does leave her five dollars, along with railroad tickets, but when she boards the train, she's left with only seventeen cents, which she keeps throughout the novel.
I was bothered by the beginning which, in effect, told us how the novel would end. I imagine this was supposed to add suspense, but all it did for me was tell me Patrice and Bill would eventually hook up. Also, that despicable heal Georgesson giving Helen five dollars didn't quite ring true, and I was wondering why he would travel thousands of miles to identify Helen's body when he obviously couldn't care less what happened to her. I can only surmise that Woolrich needed Georgesson to give her the railroad tickets as a plot device (which should be hidden).
The ending will also rattle some cages as the reader must furnish her own. You'll read it over several times, I can guarantee you.
What makes Woolrich’s novel so interesting, so propulsive, is how he introduces plot twist after plot twist at just the right moment, each time pushing you forward to the end when you confront that Stockton-ish question.
After a prologue in which a married couple with a child do a tortured dance around a horror they share, the story opens at the beginning, when Helen is a young woman, around nineteen, fleeing the city. Her boyfriend has left her pregnant and with five dollars (about fifty dollars these days). She buys a train ticket and on the train meets a young, very much in love couple, Patrice and Hugh Hazzard, returning home from Europe, where they have lived for some time. Like Helen, Patrice is pregnant, but unlike her, Patrice has a husband, apparently money, a family to go to, everything Helen lacks. They strike up a train friendship and share the bathroom before retiring. Helen even tries on Patrice’s wedding ring. Then the train crashes, Helen lands in the hospital. There authorities mistake her for Patrice (that ring, you know), who, along with Hugh, has died in the accident.
What to do? Out of desperation, she assumes the identity of Patrice and goes home to the Hazzard family, painted by Woolrich as an ideal family in an ideal house in an ideal town, all Helen never had and always dreamed of. They accept her and the baby as their daughter-in-law. All proceeds swimmingly, until the old boyfriend turns up. How he learns about her new life, how she avoids detection, how she finally frees herself, what happens with Hugh’s brother, Bill, all this Woolrich handles craftily to create suspense and the novel’s driving force.
And then, in the end, there’s the question that tears at Patrice and Bill, the one which Woolrich leaves you to answer for yourself. Frank Stockton must have smiled down on that (he died in 1902).
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