Once upon a time, I signed up for my first CBR. I had a lofty plan of reading all of Louise Erdrich’s books in order. Why did I feel like I needed a theme? Who knows. All I know is that I fell down on book one, and it took me until last year to get back up. My recollection was that I was reading Tales of Burning Love at the time, and my stumble was going back to the beginning of her bibliography. I know I first read Tales closer in time to when it was published in the late 90s. My sister shared Love Medicine with me at some point during college, and I’d read several other titles and I was excited to read Erdrich’s latest. Memories are hazy; I know I enjoyed it but perhaps less so than the others. This would explain how returning to it this winter was a completely different experience. In 1997 I was 22, child-free, single, wholly unsuccessful in my career, and still in the phase where recreational binge-drinking was cool. Now I’m 47, two kids, been through three more careers, and if I drink three drinks I need an Uber and a babysitter for not just the evening but also the following day while I try and recover. For this particular title, perspective makes all the difference in the world.
Tales is a collection of stories about the many wives, ex and current, of a bankrupt developer named Jack Mauser. Dot, the current spouse, is sharp and practical; Jack makes her feel special, which is satisfactory to her as her true love and father of her daughter, Gerry Nanapush, is in prison. (And also possibly still married to her, but, eh, Dot doesn’t really have time for your nonsense.) Marlis, the most recent ex, is parenting Jack’s child while also struggling with alcoholism. She’s been befriended by Candice, type-A, successful dentist, unable to have a child of her own who doesn’t regret divorcing Jack but does covet Marlis’ baby (and Marlis, as it turns out; more on that in a minute). And there’s Eleanor.
Ah, Eleanor. This is where time caught up to me. We are introduced to Eleanor as a literature professor in the middle of the “seduction” one of her students. Which is to say, of course, rape. When I was in my 20s, I was impressed by how sophisticated her wanton sexuality seemed, and of course, who would think twice about a woman professor getting a little rough with a male student in the late 90s? Reading it now, Eleanor is a fucking mess. She drinks too much. She’s abusive and she’s lucky the charges of assault that follow her encounter result only in her forced resignation and not criminal charges. Her pining for Jack, despite knowing about Dot, is pathetic. She is in every way the picture of a woman in freefall – and it’s brilliant. There are plenty of reasons why Eleanor finds herself in this position, involving a complicated childhood and her own grooming by Jack as a teenager. In 2022, someone in her situation lands in rehab. In 1997, however, she gets [thee] to a nunnery, where she encounters Sister Leopolda, a terrifying figure who appears in many of Erdrich’s books that spend more time examining the interaction between the Catholic church and Native American reservations. At the convent, Eleanor finds new and interesting forms of self-abuse in the name of spiritual awakening. And also manages to have sex. In a convent. With a man. A married man. Eleanor is extreme.
The stories of the women and Jack weave together to form a narrative of death and rebirth, the struggle for freedom, and surviving a dark night of the soul. While Jack is the connection, this is a novel about women; about all the different aspects of womanhood that both fight against each other and ultimately unite.
All that aside, however, Marlis and Candice’s relationship troubled me this read. Erdrich’s treatment of a lesbian couple reads to me now just exactly like a cis-hetero author with limited exposure to gay people would write it. It’s tender and loving, but simplistic and completely devoid of any real introspection by either character about their sexuality. It exists mostly for other characters to react to the idea that they are a couple. Marlis and Candice themselves seem to be together by default; their love for each other seems to be based solely on trying to deal with the consequences of their failed relationships with men. They feel like props, and it’s borderline offensive. Candice’s obsession with Jack Jr. and how it factors into her feelings for Marlis would be worth exploring. As presented, however, it’s completely devoid of nuance. Further, Marlis is the least developed character, shown mostly to be a vindictive user with far less of a sympathetic backstory than the others. She’s young, uneducated, not pretty but image obsessed. She survives entirely by manipulating others. Why? Who hurt you, girl? No, really, please tell me who hurt Marlis, because she’s the only one who doesn’t get a fair shake.
Tales is begging for a stage or screen adaptation. The night the women spend together, trapped in a car in a blizzard, is pitched with claustrophobia, fear, and resilience. Secrets are revealed out of desperation, not trust, but once the truth is out, unexpected bonds are formed. Erdrich’s writing is, as ever, beautiful and full of perfectly detailed imagery. My sister made a comment to me recently about my Franzen Fetish (for which she is also responsible) that she was tired of reading men trying to tell her about women. It was truly refreshing to revisit after my 2021 Franzen binge – to hear that voice describe complicated and not always charming women in a way that is (for the most part) whole.