THE 19TH WIFE. Our heroine, Brinley, is a member of a commune of FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saint) Mormons, and the youngest wife of this creepy old man named Lehi. Brinley is just aware enough to know that something about their commune is off, but she is so deeply entrenched in the religion that she feels like the problem might rest with her, even as she repeatedly sneaks off to get forbidden birth control pills and wears makeup for her husband at his request. I feel like Melissa Brown clearly did a lot of research in preparation for this book because it syncs up with a lot of memoirs I've read by ex-FLDS members and at times, it felt like I was reading a biography or a memoir about things that actually could have happened.
My favorite POV was probably the old woman, Jorjina, who was the wife of the previous prophet and now is basically at the mercy of her son, resigned to be a silent figurehead. I thought she was incredibly interesting and the most interesting character in the book. Brinley could be a frustrating narrator and all of her sections are written in first person, so there's really no escape. I can see why some readers found her annoying. She's selfish and almost painfully naive, but I think this makes sense given her age and circumstances. After years of being brainwashed and forced to marry young, she's finally recognizing her own agency and acknowledging her abuse by the men of her community.
I was less a fan of the love interest, Porter, who was pretty far from dreamy. He meets the heroine when he's STEALING HER PURSE. He's also an active meth user who's trying (with mixed success) to kick the habit. Points to the author, again, for going with someone so flawed as a love interest-- it made this book very, very different from any new adult title I've ever read-- but he wasn't exactly dreamy, and I found his controlling nature kind of off-putting. The way he started trying to control Brinley's sex life and berating her for wearing makeup just made it seem like she was stepping out of the frying pan and into the fire from one unhealthy relationship to another. I guess it's a tiny bit better that they're closer in age and finances and don't have the terrible power imbalance that Brinley had with Lehi, but I'm not going to be wearing any "Team Porter!" buttons anytime soon, if you know what I mean.
Overall, I thought this was a pretty good book. It seemed well-researched and there was so much dramatic tension that I didn't want to put it down. On the other hand, I almost feel like it would have worked better if it weren't written as a romance novel because I think the romance was one of the weakest elements of this book. The strongest was definitely the portrayal of the FLDS, the surprising themes of sisterhood and female empowerment against the backdrop of male tyranny, and themes of pursuing your own dreams while also weighing the costs it takes to achieve them.
3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars