Taking a risky leap, Erdrich sets aside the magical-realist style of her many volumes about the Ojibwes (The Red Convertible, 2008 etc.) to write a domestic tragedy set among sophisticated, assimilated, highly educated and successful Native Americans.
Gil and Irene live with their kids Florian, Riel and Stony in a seemingly idyllic home in Minneapolis. Gil is a renowned painter, Irene the subject of his graphically revealing portraits. Also a gifted historian, she is currently doing research for her doctorate dissertation about the painter George Catlin. Self-consciously aware of their heritage, Gil (raised in poverty by his white mother after his Native American father’s death in Vietnam) and Irene (given a middle-class upbringing by her AIM activist mother) know that observers consider them an iconic couple. But Gil has a habit of brutalizing the children he cherishes, and Irene cannot relinquish the glass of wine always in her hand to protect them. When Irene realizes that Gil has been reading her diary, she feels her soul has been invaded. She begins writing entries to play with his mind, torturing him about an affair he imagines she is having. Obsessed with his love for Irene, Gil thinks that he wants to save the marriage. Irene thinks that she wants to free herself from Gil. Both are lying to themselves. Erdrich’s unsparing prose dissects these two deeply flawed characters to show their ugliest selves, yet she allows them each their moments of joy and spiritual respite alone, together and with their children. Into this deeply personal novel about marriage, family and individual identity, she also weaves broader questions about cause and effect in history—specifically the effect Catlin’s painting of Native Americans had on them and on him—that resonate within her characters’ lives.
Readers familiar with Erdrich’s personal life may suspect she has written close to the bone here, but she manages the rare achievement of rising above the facts she has incorporated to create a small masterpiece of compelling, painfully moving fiction.