I have to warn you there are going to be some spoilers in this post, so if you haven't read the book yet, I advise you to come back here after you have. There are quite a few reviews out there from reputable sources, some of them are good but others seem not to have quite 'gotten' Erdrich's main point. She makes quite a few 'points' and the various reviewers pick up on some of them. I'll quote my favorite 'bon mot' (with credit) further down in the text. Here are the links to some of these reviews:
New York Times Book Review, Washington Post,
okay, so the novel is the taut and spare three-narrator tale of a decaying, dissolving marriage that involves a husband-wife team of part-native-american artist and model (also sometime doctoral student) Gil and Irene America, and their three children, Florian, math genius, 15, Riel, would-be-native artemis, let's say 11, and youngest son, Stoney, budding artist, age 6.
it's a sad and disturbing tale of love, lust, obsession, deception, vulnerability, cracking-up, home-grown kinds of minor violence, substance abuse, and overall, the futile attempt to stop it.
for myself, i found the deception the most difficult part to bear. perhaps because of my own personal emotional make-up the notion of ever-shifting sands, never having a footing for trust to take hold, disturbed me the most. As anyone who's read any review of the book must know, there are two diaries involved here, the real 'blue' one kept in a bank vault in which Irene records her real thoughts and feelings, and a 'red' one kept at home where she knows her obsessive husband will read it and become enflamed (red) with jealousy, doubt, and fear. here is the bon mot I liked best from the various book-reviews: "As a story of aggravated jealousy, it's as though the same person were playing Desdemona and Iago." (Ron Charles, Washington Post) that statement ought to provide an intriguing hint for you if you haven't yet read the book. The New York Times titled its review 'Cruel Love.' How apt.
the violence, although it was unpleasant and destructive, seemed to me to fall within the realm of the normal. what does that say about me? but i do know, having grown up with exactly that degree of violence in my own home - although the source was not my father - that for children it is quite destructive and not easy to forgive. children are such vulnerable critters and sometimes i think that, as adults, we forget that. things that seem minor to us, some slightly cruel jest, for example, can be taken in as a mortal wound by the youngsters, what to say of sharp raps to the head, (common though they may have been in the neighborhood where i grew up. see joe queenan's 'closing time' for comparisons.)
i've also had my whirl with obsessive artist-love and i'd just like to be spared that ever happening in my life again. so i certainly can sympathize with the plight of Gil and Irene from that angle. i've also been in a long 30+ years marriage so i know some of the sheer craziness that can come and go as a part of that process. it isn't always pretty, what?
Okay, now here comes the SPOILER, so stop reading at this point if you haven't read the book yet, unless you think you never will: for most of the book, i found myself quite angry and not all that sympathetic toward Irene. Of course, I love Louise Erdrich's books, so I am naturally disposed to be sympathetic towards a character who seems to 'represent' on some level the actual author. People say that the book is not autobiographical, and strictly speaking it is not, but the parallels are too many and too plain not to warrant some sense that either LE is working something out in writing this book, or more likely, offering to her reading public some - what? - explanation? insight, perhaps into her own situation with its, i think it's fair to say, tragic outcome.
Anyway, this is the REAL SPOILER - and also, for me, the MAIN POINT OF THE BOOK - and I'll try not to ruin it completely for you - after I read the book I found myself feeling much better about LE. At the end of the story, when the two parents are drowning, the daughter expresses that she is angriest at her mother for taking this foolish chance of saving her husband instead of saving herself for them. Well, isn't that just what Louise Erdrich did in real life? The two of them were drowning, and she was cruel enough to perform the 'dastardly' deed of the divorce, which Michael Dorris couldn't survive, but she saved herself for those six children. Unlike in the book, when he 'swam' toward her, in real life she didn't swim toward him. It's hard, it's tragic, but that sometimes is life. He didn't survive and she did.
In the end, the nuclear family has given way to a larger, more invented family/community, and I gather from my own limited observation of their present-day situation, that is how they now live.
I certainly walked away from the book with more respect for Louise Erdrich and a sense of sheer awe at the power and artistry of this book.