Sure, the Richards family, featured in Brady Udall’s “The Lonely Polygamist,” is a bit bigger than most families. And for a man to be shared between four wives, 28 children and three houses does not seem normal to us.
But Udall is more interested in using this extraordinary family as a literary device for the question, “How can a family stay together and be happy?”
And really, this Mormon family values many of the same things that we hold dear: God, family and hard work. Golden Richards, the ironically lonely man to whom the book’s title refers, has dedicated much of his adult life to such things since moving to Utah to connect with his absentee father.
However, as is common experience, his life becomes more than a handful as his family grows. His construction business is failing and his wives are constantly jockeying for power in the house and for his attention. One misstep on his part could cause the whole family to fall apart.
The anxiety created by all of this creates a number of devastating and darkly humorous consequences.
He must limit the attention he gives his kids individually, as its impossible to shower lavish attention on each one and showing more attention to one would result in the rest expecting the same. (In one scene, two of the children go into the house with lollipops, and a small riot is incited).
The same goes for his wives, who draw up an elaborate schedule for what nights he’ll spend with which wife. The system prefers the women with more children, since they are allowed more time with Golden. He rarely says “I love you” to his wives in fear that he might unintentionally play favorites.
As one might expect, Golden’s balancing act of affection wearies him to the point of driving him away from his family. He begins to lie to his family about the “hard work” involved with his latest construction project in Nevada: a brothel that they all think will be a retirement home (he has to take the work he gets). He ends up staying at the construction site in his small trailer to avoid the civil wars over which he is fought.
This is where he meets Huila, with whom he has a non-sexual relationship. All the same, this “affair” has quite the effect on the more dependent members of his family. His son, Rusty, whose birthday is all but forgotten, acts out in strange and somewhat perverse ways in order to get attention.
Also Trish, his latest wife, is noticeably lonely; having had only one child (despite a series of stillbirths), she gets the short end of his programmed affection. To get the intimacy she needs, she seeks out magazine sex tips and even drives to Golden’s construction site to see him (breaking the first rule of the wives’ code). Still unfulfilled, it takes some creativity on her part to get pregnant with another child.
This being a story that involves polygamy, I was afraid it could get awkwardly surreal, disturbingly erotic or bitingly sardonic. Yet Udall avoids all of that, presenting this world with empathy and honesty. He doesn’t expect you to agree with the abnormal and illegal practice of the polygamist. Instead, this is a story into which even average readers can project their own story.
“The Lonely Polygamist” is full of interesting, exhausting, and (eventually) heartwarming family moments. Readers will find themselves rooting for this fragmented family to make it through.