Review of LOVE MEDICINE by LOUISE ERDRICH
Like THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, Erdrich’s first novel LOVE MEDCINE spins a long-spanning story about a family history. However, in this case it’s more like a tribe history - with complicated connections linking disparate characters together. Spreading across 60 years, the book follows Ojibwa characters living in North Dakota.
The novel switches time and perspective every chapter. Pay close attention to the chapter headers that inform you of who’s speaking and when. Most chapters feature a first person narration, which makes mixing them up easy if you don’t root yourself at the start of the chapter in who’s speaking now. I personally do not like when a book features more than one first person voice. When we follow different characters in third person, it’s simple telling them apart because we’re reading a different name. With multiple first person viewpoints, the voices need to be starkly unique, and more often than not I don’t find the voices distinct enough from each other for me to consistently track who’s speaking when.
I had a similar reaction to LOVE MEDICINE as THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB. Good but not as great. Strong writing, but not notable enough that I fawn over phrases - like I did with THE ROUND HOUSE. A big cast of interesting characters and yet I didn’t invest in them enough to fall in love with the book.
As with THE MASTER BUTCHERS SINGING CLUB, characters lead the novel more than plot so I want to take a moment to describe the key players. The book spends the most time with a love triangle featuring Lulu, Marie, and Nector. Many small communities have that someone about whom everyone gossips, that someone who causes waves whether they meant to or not. Lulu is that someone for this community. She loves easily and briefly and a lot of children by different fathers have come from that carefree love. She’s independent and unpredictable and the kind of person who thrives more than wilts under criticism and judgment. Nector falls for Lulu hard as a young man, but ultimately marries Marie, a safer choice. When Nector and Marie struggle having children of their own, Marie starts taking in orphans whenever she can until they have a house brimming over with kids. Meanwhile, Nector never lets go of his torch for Lulu and it starts burning away at the edges of his marriage. There are plenty more characters, many of whom get their own chapters, but if I had to pinpoint a focal center, it would be Lulu, Marie, and Nector.
I had this strange reaction to LOVE MEDICINE that I’m not sure I ever felt for a book before - where I found the characters more intriguing off the page than on. What I mean is that while I was reading, I didn’t find myself strongly investing in characters’ motivations, goals, experiences, etc. However, whenever I set the book down I continued thinking about them. Any book that can do that has my respect and I would definitely push this for book groups.