cover image Tales of Burning Love

Tales of Burning Love

Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins Publishers, $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-06-017605-1

Some of the excitement that greeted Erdrich's first book, Love Medicine, will be rekindled with the publication of her captivating fifth novel. While building on the strengths for which she is noted (she again portrays several Native American families whose interconnected life stories coalesce into a unified narrative), Erdrich here broadens her range and ambitions. She constructs this book with a more conventional novelistic form and sets most of it outside the reservation. A robust richness of both plot and character, and an irresistible fusion of tension, mystery and dramatic momentum, add up to powerful, magical storytelling. Two epochal, whiteout North Dakota blizzards 23 years apart define the major events of Jack Mauser's life. During the first, in 1972, his young Chipewa wife, whom he has just married after a few hours acquaintance during a drunken binge, leave his car to perish in the cold (an event foreshadowed in The Bingo Palace). During the second, in 1995, Jack's succeeding wives, all four of them, are trapped overnight in Jack's van, having come together for his funeral. In this quartet of personalities, Erdrich creates a gallery of indelible portraits, each of them distinct, vivid and human in their frailties. What they have in common, their love for charming, preening, self-destructive Jack, is their means of survival through the frigid night. Each woman tells her tale-always full of passion, but often farcical, too-of how Jack wooed, wed, frustrated, drove to distraction, liberated and deserted her. These stories provide both catharsis and insight, allowing each to understand how she in turn contributed to Jack's destruction. And the dialogue, especially the bickering among claustrophobically confined women, is pungent and smart. Erdrich reveals here a new talent for unexpected plot twists and cliff-hanger chapter endings, some funny, some melodramatic. If there are a few too many coincidences (Jack, who is presumed dead but is not, reluctantly kidnaps his own infant son, who in turn is kidnapped by Jack's fifth wife's ex-husband, also presumed dead), it all seems quite plausible in the context of Erdrich's adroit manipulation of interlocking plot strands. Her eye for sensual detail is impeccable, whether it is the evocation of the landscape and weather of the North Dakota plains or the many erotic couplings that Jack's wives, and Jack himself, remember. Jack, too, is a triumph; he's a real scamp and philanderer with other deplorable character traits, but Erdrich limns him with tolerant humor and compassion. Erdrich has definitely gone commercial here, and some readers may miss the ethereal, mystical qualities of her early work. But like several characters who are psychologically or almost literally reborn, reinspired and reset on life's path, Erdrich has granted her literary reputation refreshing new potency. 100,000 first printing; $150,000 ad/promo; author tour; first serial to Cosmopolitan; Literary Guild alternate; dramatic rights: Charles Rembar. (Apr.)