Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Title: Love Medicine
Author: Louise Erdrich, living goddess, who published her debut novel at age 29
Release Date: 2020
Genre: Instant classic
Describe it in a sentence: 
The intertwining lives of two Ojibwe families on a reservation in North Dakota, narrated by different family members
TV/movie character who would like it: Bear with me, but Noah and Helen of The Affair—a show about marital infidelity told through each character’s perspective.

It’s not every day that you read a book that reminds you of everything a book can be. Most of the time the books I read are confirmations of what I already know.

To put it bluntly, Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich’s first novel and the first one I read by Louise Erdrich, exploded the novel. Actually, I’m self-conscious of writing sentences down now, having seen all that Erdrich in her mid-twenties could do. I found myself nodding along the way you do when you see the truth repackaged in a new way.

Love Medicine is the start of a trilogy that follows the same families. It’s a polyphonic book, narrated by different characters, all of whom feel the repercussions of the others decisions. The novel breaks with form, retreading the same events through different lenses. Later Erdrich said she wrote her first novel this way because she didn’t know how to structure an entire book leaning on only one voice.

Louise Erdrich gives me Carla Gugino in The Haunting of Hill House vibes

That surprises me, that this is an accident. Because the book seems masterful—far from a first-time novelist relying on gimmick. Sometimes it was hard to follow, but I decided to trust the characters; eventually, the story would come into focus. And it did (though families trees will help).

Take even the degree of differences between each narrator. The cadence of the sentences alters depending on who is telling the story. Language and syntax becomes a vessel for character—the unapologetic, matter-of-factness of Lulu Lamartine, mother of eight sons to different men; Lyman Lamartine as he watches his luck come and go in quick sentences. Characters seamlessly process the magical alongside the real, living in a reality that is abundant in possibility, if limited in opportunity.

It feels a bit silly, for that reason, to go into the plot details. You should let the Kashpaws, Lamartines, and co. tell it yourself. But this is the deal: In the opening scene, June Morrissey, a Chippewa woman, dies after an encounter in a remote mining town. She walks into the snow, and it feels, according to Erdirch’s narration, like going home. Or maybe it doesn’t feel like coming home—maybe it is. After reading Love Medicine, you may take indeed sentence—“The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home”—literally.

Later on, a character beautifully remarks on the thin boundary between life and death: “Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart’s position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won’t ever come by such a bargain again.”

Erdrich describes June’s death as a kind of home-going. Appropriate, because the entire book is concerned with home, with the reservation these people were born on, and live their lives on—bumping into the same people, the same ceilings of opportunity. Even when the characters aren’t home, they’re thinking of it.

Anyway, June’s character is refined via the narrative engine of the book: A love triangle between Nector Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine, both Chippewas, and Marie Lazarre, a white 14-year-old who—after escaping a convent—meets Nector in a field. The drama begins when they’re teenagers, and never ends, only evolve.

A wonderful family tree, credit to this blogger

And how could it end? Lulu, Marie, and Nector have no choice but to live through their connections as they change. Marie’s adopted grandson, one of the “strays” she takes in, comments on her relationship with Nector (who, by that point, is losing his mind to dementia but is lowkey carrying out an affair with Lulu). They’re both seniors, but are just as firey with each other—defying his expectation that older people are somehow more docile, somehow feel less.

“You see I thought love got easier over, the years so it didn’t hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash. She loved him. She was jealous. She mourned him like the dead. And he just smiled into the air, trapped in the seams of his mind,” Lipsha said.

This novel is about what happens when people live in close proximity, and simply never leave. There’s a fishbowl quality to it, like a long social experiment: What happens when you cordon people off into one geographic region, and watch their lives play out?

I looked up many a map while reading

Then again, what the outside world holds might not be any better. Characters are ruined by war. By emotionally meaningless, but physically destructive, encounters with men. By poverty, injustice, and racism. On the reservation, you get the sense that at least characters are understood by one another. Because the world outside the reservation holds the people who made the concept of a reservation necessary at all.

Erdrich’s book is teeming with insight into life on a North Dakota reservation in the 20th century, and with plain ‘ol wisdom, including gems like this: “The greatest wisdom doesn’t know itself. The richest plan is not to have one.”

I’m so happy I read it—and so happy I let the powers of the aisle work their magic. The art of the wander.

moi in the library

While I loved it, Love Medicine came into my life completely by chance. Erdrich’s name was on that hazy list of authors whose work I hadn’t gotten to yet. During my first trip to the library stacks post-quarantine, I was overwhelmed with choice and possibility. It felt like staring at a timetable in an airport and instead of dreaming of boarding a plane to all those destinations, actually going to those destinations. Books are the closest thing I get to travel these days, and the emotional experience of this book was honestly akin to some of the immersive rushes I’ve had while walking alone down an foreign city’s street, seeing the familiar refracted through a new light.

Luckily, I happened to pick her first book, and the first in the trilogy. Now, I fully intend to dive into the Erdrich extended universe, which includes an array of stories—including one dystopia that looks delectable.

Have you read other books by Louise Erdrich? Let me know! I need help guiding my next read.

Buy Love Medicine

The Roommate by Rosie Danan

Cool trend defy-ing coover

Title: The Roommate
Author: Rosie Danan, debut author! Go Rosie!
Release Date: 2020
Genre: Rom-com with the lights dimmed and the softcore music playing
Describe it in a sentence: 
A buttoned up WASP blows up her life and moves to L.A., where she learns her fetching new roommate is a…….porn star!
TV/movie character who would like it: Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex Girlfriend

Hello, friends, writers, readers, countrymen. It’s been a long time since I picked up my place in this blog. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been reading–I have been! A lot! What else is a person to do in a pandemic, aside from read, worry, take temperature, drink wine, and repeat? If you have an answer, let me know. (You can check out my full list of 2020 reads here).

Anyway, I wanted to add blogging and reviewing to my list of activities, hopefully to knock the anxiety-related ones off a pedastal.

An exceptionally long wind-up to my saying that The Roommate is one of many rom-coms and romances that have provided me with solace and companionship this year as my own romantic prospects have dwindled. These books, with their twists and turns really just currents leading me to a guaranteed happy endings, have been more than comfort food. They’ve been escape pods to a universe where things keep getting better, not worse. They’re full of people like Josh and Clara, the characters in The Roommate, who are flawed, yes, but undeniably decent.

The book’s premise is what drew me to The Roommate, ever since I heard about it a few months ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it what draws everyone to The Roommate, actually. It’s provocative: What would it be like to date an adult performer? What would it be like to date as an adult performer?

I found the book’s cheery and wholesome tone to be at odds, occasionally, with the subject matter: I wanted more humor, more sharp prodding at the underlying tension between the characters and their positions on the Great American Pyramd. More Clara freaking out at watching Josh have sex with other women (or at least…broach the topic of jealousy at all!) MORE SEX. But more on that later.

Right, so, the premise: Clara Wheaton is a wealthy WASP from a family with Connecticut pedigree (as in, there are university buildings named after them). In a real Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex Girlfriend move, she moves across the country to chase down her childhood crush, Everett Bloom, who has a spare room in L.A. Right after she arrives, Everett announces he’s moving, leaving Clara to live with the dimpled stranger he met off Craigslist (Note: I don’t know if he’s supposed to have dimples, but he has them in my head).

Josh, in my head

Enter: Josh Darling, the porn star with a sheen of Midwestern wholesomeness and a heart of gold. (I pictured him as Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights). When Clara learns that her roommate is an adult performer, and holds her breath in so tightly that eventually all of her tightly buttoned up cardigans start to pop.

Until she met Josh, Clara hadn’t given much thought to her own pleasure. Suddenly, it’s all she can think about. They’re both buzzing around at home, constantly horny and yearning, yet unable to give in to each other for different reasons (reminds me of quarantine, TBH).

Finally, these two hyperactive 20-somethings decide to funnel all that energy not into leaping into bed but into…forming a company to teach women to harness their pleasure (and ostensibly give men a GPS to find the clitoris). Their company, Shameless, comes together in rom com-level warp speed, skipping past all the questions I had about logistics. I wanted to know what the product was, its specific pricing, and how they intended to be profitable, okay!

For a book abut embracing pleasure the two characters sure do a good job of denying themselves pleasure constantly. Part of this is for the same reason that allows rom-coms (or most of them) to work: None of This Would Happen If You Just Talked To Each Other Honestly. Lots of miscommunications. But ultimately, they’re able to function despite constantly thudding into a wall of lust.

Here’s the thing.

As someone who has been in a dangerously complicated romanic entanglement with a roommate, I can speak on ths.

The situation is IS A LOT MORE AGONIZING IN REAL LIFE than t’s depicted as being in The Roommate. I needed more torture and high-temperature than I got in The Roommate. Especially given their different positions in life.

Clara has real season 1 of Mad Men energy

This might be a good segue for me to say that I didn’t quite buy them as a couple, Josh and Clara. OR, I would’ve bought them, if Josh and Clara had spent more time actually working out their relationship. Namely, he’s a porn star; she’s an Uptown Girl. I needed them to talk about those things. Not sing the equivalent of a Billy Joel song about it and walk into the sunset.

There’s a place where Danan should’ve slowed down and simmered: The couple’s main conflict at the end. Clara publicly denies that Josh is her boyfriend, because she’s ashamed, because he’s a porn star. Eventually, the conversation gets buttoned up—but without the soul-level excavation of societal programming, gender roles, etc. that’s necessary for them to meet on an even playing field of mutual understanding.

I wanted them to talk about finances, and class, and perception, and privilege, and shame—and how all those filtered into pleasure/female pleasure, their favorite topic of conversation. Talk about why Clara never felt that pleasure was something that should be on her checklist (marrying well, instead, was). And why Josh turned to porn instead of a PhD in art history, when he was aimless (he doesn’t have a trust fund).

Then, once they get together as a couple, I wanted to see them deal with bridging those gaps. That, to me, is the fun. Not only the getting together. The working out, too. An example of a romance novel that does the “working out” bit excellently and convincingly For Real by Alexis Hall. The couple, both men, are about 15 years apart—and their age and wealth gap are grappled with throughout the novel. Since they “get together” (ie sleep together) much sooner than Josh and Clara in The Roommate, this couple has time to, well, talk. Their heads aren’t always buzzing with desire.

The premise of The Roommate book is fascinating, as I stated. Inherent to Josh and Clara’s relationship is a lot to figure out, and a lot to teach each other. I wanted to watch them start the process, at least, of figuring out how this relationship would work in the real world—and maybe I would’ve bought them as a couple more. And bought the scene of Clara’s Greenwich parents having Thanksgiving with Josh (THAT is a conversation I needed to see, especially given her need for their approval!)

Do I sound like a fun sucker? I’m sorry if so. The book was a romp and an optimistic page-turner. I appreciated the characters’ definition of “love” as a kind of freedom to be yourself, and be wholly accepted. I totally recommend it for a feminist take on the porn industry, and a rosy portrayal of what could be in adult entertainment.

The Roommate is a worthy read—after all, it’s always a joy to watch women unravel into puddles of pleasure after reigning themselves in for so long. Sort of like Sandy from Grease, though I could never tell if she wanted to be a Greaser or if she was just changing for Danny.

Josh and Clara in his Corvette

Whether Clara changed for Josh or because of Josh (and I think it’s the latter), I’m happy it happened. Another woman who learns to exhale, sink into her body, and enjoy her life. Even if she and Josh don’t work out (WHICH I KNOW isn’t the point of the book), I think she’ll remember that lesson in Greenwich.

Buy The Roommate

“Call Me By Your Name,” Or An Aching Love Story That Will Become An Aching Movie This Fall

418NXgCbb8LI’ll be lucky if I can get Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman out from under my skin at some point within the next year. I’ll also be lucky if my fellow commuters forget that, one Thursday afternoon, my face involuntarily contorted into a sob on the last page of a slim novel. What Call Me By Your Name lacks in pages, it makes up for in sheer psychological depth.

Welcome to the landscape of an all-consuming first love. A kind love that you forgot about after you turned 20, because frankly, that kind of full emotion is almost exhausting to remember. And it’s sad to remember, too — that state of pure awareness can only be sustained for so long.

Elio is 17, and if I could describe him in one word, it would be inflamed. He’s inflamed because of his sudden, unexpected attraction to the American scholar staying at his family’s Italian villa for the summer. And he’s inflamed because he’s realizing that he’s capable of such extreme emotion, emotion so viscous action seems impossible. Essentially: he’s just realized what love is.

Most of the novel is Elio parsing through his own thoughts, squeezing meaning from his David’s daily paths, searching for layers of truth behind innocuous lines of dialogue. He’s a thinker, not an actor. Eventually, after pages and pages spent analyzing passion, he acts. Thank god — now we get some juicy bits involving peaches and unforgettable innuendos.

There’s a lot I love about this novel. Italian villas. Literary crowds. Literary snobs. Sexy sex. Coming of age. Persistent great love that nags and nags throughout a lifetime. The idea of soulmates. The exploration of sexuality, bisexuality, and loving someone for their “core.”

Most notably, I loved the pressing, inespecable presence of time in the novel. Time functions on three levels in the novel. There’s the slow-moving Mediterranean Summer Time that I, having spent summers in Cyprus and Greece, know so well. Waking up with the sun, the mornings stretch, then the afternoon meals stretch, then night turns into a terrain of desire. Sleep’s an afterthought in the long, languid days that seem to go on forever, but when sleep does come, it knocks your sun-drenched body out. 

In the weeks we’d been thrown together that summer, our lives had scarcely touched, but we had crossed to the other bank, where time stops and heaven reaches down to earth and gives us that ration of what is from birth divinely ours. We looked the other way. We spoke about everything but. But we’ve always known, and not saying anything now confirmed it all the more. We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only.

On the other hand, time is inevitably pulling Elio and David towards an ending. David’s fellowship at the villa lasts only six weeks. Once the boys finally get together (no spoilers) Elio must make a choice. Does he give himself fully to the moment as if there were no ending, or does he stay aware of time?

Contrasted with this furious love affair is Elio’s ten-year-old neighbor, who’s dying of leukemia. Her days in the Italian sun are numbered, and she’s very vocal about the fact, to an off-putting degree. David and Elio are never able to confront their own limited days in the sun with language. Rather, they twist, they ache, they twist the minute hand but it doesn’t slow down. We’ve all been in those time-sensitive love affairs. They’re even more passionate because they have years of passion to cram into days. The roar of a love that can’t live out its due is deafening. It’s sad to think that the little girl won’t ever feel that love.  

And then, finally, there’s Love Time. Just as with the book Americanah, time doesn’t erode the connection between David and Elio, and that’s almost the worst part. The optical illusion of time passing — that circumstances change but people don’t.

Twenty years was yesterday, and yesterday was just earlier this morning, and morning seemed light-years away.

All that praise doled out, there’s also a lot that drove me crazy about this novel. I’m happy I’m not a 17-year-old boy in love for the first time. There were many instances I said, yo, Elio — just go to him! While Aciman’s language is supremely exacting, it’s also maddening. How much time can we spend in the whirling dervish of adolescence? No longer than the number of pages that this book is: That is the absolute maximum.

I also took one large plot detail with a grain of salt. David is 24, and Elio is 17. In a book, I don’t care. But in real life, if my 24 year old boyfriend left me for a 17 year old, I’d be…well — inflamed.

I’m hoping that the movie, which has already garnered praise at Sundance, will strip some of the mental game of one-person ping pong, and inject more searing stares. Yum, Armie Hammer, yum.