This was a good one!
In The 19th Wife, two stories are told concurrently. The first introduced is the story of Ann Eliza Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young (yes, THE Brigham Young who helped establish Utah as a territory, was an early leader of the Mormon church, and has a university named for him). The reader knows from the beginning that Ann Eliza is famous because of her apostasy from the LDS church and divorce from Brigham, but the story begins with that of her parents and how they came to follow Joseph Smith after knowing him personally. There is much background information regarding the beginnings of the Mormon church and Joseph's establishing himself as the church's prophet. The beginnings include the church doctrine of polygamy, including its origination in the church as a supposed holy calling from God. Clearly the author thinks polygamy is a bad idea (I'm with him on that - just ask Trey), so even the well-intentioned bright spots of the doctrine are tinged with bitterness. I felt as if I watched people being indoctrinated into a religious cult, and I totally understood why they accepted many things as fact even though they seemed far-fetched and against everything they had ever known.
Ann Eliza is a rebel whom I cheered for, but she is neither without fault nor of perfect character, which is what makes her story so compelling.
(Sidebar/Disclaimer: I love a lot of Mormons. I do not believe in their religion, but some of the most special people in the world to me (students, mostly) are Mormon. I have visited a Mormon church as a guest of my students. Nothing in this review should be considered in any way as Mormon-bashing. The church has publicly denounced polygamy, and all religions have skeletons in their closets, so please don't leave here thinking I hate Mormons. I try to make a point not to trash other people's religions, as I find it kind of rude and also ineffective in converting others to my own religion if I choose to try.)
The second story is that of Jordan Scott, a modern day young man who was cast out of a polygamous compound when he was fourteen. Jordan is the anti-Mormon: a gay, cursing, angry man who hates the church for all it has done to him. Even though the modern day compound is actually run by a religious sect known as the Firsts (it, too, is decidedly un-Mormon), Jordan is violently against all religions and finds them to be downright offensive.
Early on in the novel, he sees a news report that his mother, the 19th wife of a Firsts prophet, has been arrested for killing her husband. Even though she allowed Jordan to be thrown out like trash years before, he must go to his mother and see her one last time. That is, of course, where his adventure begins.
I thought that the two stories told together would be confusing and difficult to read, but I was wrong. It was actually refreshing because just when one story began to lull, the next chapter would switch to the other story. The connections between the two were obvious, but the stories didn't seem to be stretched just so they could be connected.
This is my favorite kind of fiction because of its historical nature, and I found myself right away wanting to research Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young, and the Firsts. I put it off as long as possible (I didn't want to spoil the mystery of it), but finally looked it up. I found this conversation with the author to be particularly enlightening. Ann Eliza's story in the book is his fictional account of her life, but much of what he includes is from his research. To add to the non-fiction/fiction feel of the book, the author actually includes Wikipedia articles, requests for access to the LDS church's archives, and other relevant historical documents at appropriate times during the story. I found this element of Ebershoff's novel to be terribly interesting and liked it much more than I thought I would.
The only real negative is that the details after Ann Eliza's apostasy seem to drag out. While I appreciate their relevance to the novel, they could have been condensed. Her life before her escape is more exciting, and because of the chronological nature of the novel her not-as-exciting activities after she left the church made the end of the novel sort of fizzle out. Jordan's story, on the other hand, ends as a novel should, with the denouement near enough to the end that the reader is left with some level of excitement about the story. (Yes, I could have said "final outcome" instead of "denouement," but sometimes being pretentious is fun.)
The two stories in the novel certainly have a common theme. Today is the same as 100 years ago and 100 years before in that people are searching for love, acceptance, and assurance about their future after our small time on earth is over. Sadly, there are also those ready and willing to take advantage of the most desperate of us.
Overall, this book was great. I definitely recommend it!