With as sure a hand as she used to reach in and touch the terror of family and tribal love in Love Medicine, Erdrich now captures in relatedness and friendship a startlingly Dickensian germ of comedy. Following three very eccentric friends through girlhood and into old age, the book deals with Mary Adare, her cousin Sita Kozka, and their friend Celestine James (one of the Kapshaws, readers of Love Medicine may remember), all living in the little town of Argus, North Dakota--an utterly pure nowhere. Mary comes to Argus after her mother deserts her and her brother Karl (who flits in and out of the story thereafter--a character of flimflam yet mystery); her uncle and aunt own a butcher shop there, a butcher shop Mary will eventually take over--with her friend Celestine--and run for the rest of their lives. Cousin Sita, never forgiving Mary's interloping, spends the rest of her own life putting some imaginary distance between herself and the common run-of-the-mill Argus life--but is foiled again and again, and needs to be continually rescued by Mary and Celestine. The three women are complete individuals--oddballs, in fact. And it is exactly their eccentricity that provides Erdrich with what she needs to create one funny set-piece after another: Mary assaulting Celestine's daughter Dot's grade-school teacher; Sita opening a far too fancy restaurant, the chef coming down with food-poisoning the night of the debut; Mary and Celestine pressed into cooking-services (a scene as good as the classic I Love Lucy episode with the assembly-line cakes); Sita in a mental hospital for a single night; Dot's disastrous starring-role in a school play. These strange characters are so plastic and pliable--while deeply interknit--that Erdrich doesn't have to do much than nudge them into confident motion: outrageousness comes off them like heat. John Irving has been straining at this kind of warm-color comedy for books and books now--and can't quite do it. Erdrich can--with a prose style as vivid and compelling as Love Medicine's: never cheap, never melodramatic or short-cutting. A truly lovely book--worthy successor to Love Medicine.