Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich (New York: Harper, 2010).
Summary: "When Irene America discovers that her husband, Gil, has been reading her diary, she begins a secret Blue Notebook, stashed securely in a safe-deposit box. There she records the truth about her life and her marriage, while turning her Red Diary -- hidden where Gil will find it -- into a manipulative farce. Alternating between these two records, complemented by unflinching third-person narration, Shadow Tag is an eerily gripping read.
"When the novel opens, Irene is resuming work on her doctoral thesis about George Catlin, the nineteenth-century painter whose Native American subjects often regarded his portraits with suspicious wonder. Gil, who gained notoriety as an artist through his emotionally revealing portraits of his wife -- work that is adoring, sensual, and humiliating, even shocking -- realizes that his fear of losing Irene may force him to create the defining work of his career.
"Meanwhile, Irene and Gil fight to keep up appearances for their three children: fourteen-year-old genius Florian, who escapes his family's unraveling with joints and a stolen bottle of wine; Riel, their only daughter, an eleven-year-old feverishly planning to preserve her family, no matter what disaster strikes; and sweet kindergartener Stoney, who was born, his parents come to realize, at the beginning of the end.
"As her home increasingly becomes a place of violence and secrets, and she drifts into alcoholism, Irene moves to end her marriage. But her attachment to Gil is filled with shadowy need and delicious ironies. In brilliantly controlled prose, Shadow Tag fearlessly explores the complex nature of love, the fluid boundaries of identity, and one family's struggle for survival and redemption."
Opening Line: "I have two diaries now."
My Take: A dark but beautiful story about the slow crumbling of a marriage, the complex coexistence of love and loathing, and the devastating depths to which people can sink to wound those they once loved. The dual diaries are but one weapon (albeit an especially cruel one) in Irene's and Gil's arsenals. You'd think, from the jacket summary and what I've written so far, that Shadow Tag is another melodramatic, Oprah's Book Club-style selection, but it isn't. In Erdrich's hands, what could be maudlin and formulaic is intricately nuanced ... and hence, very, very believable. Most of the stories I've read where one character's alcoholism is an important plot point hit you over the head with it; here, you see both the celebratory and seductive facets of Irene's wine as well. Likewise, there are scenes where the reader clearly sees and feels both Irene's and Gil's perspectives and pain: Gil's being distracted by the TV news during Stoney's birth on 9/11/01, and later, the elaborate surprise birthday party he plans for Irene in hopes of regaining her love come to mind. Even the couple's three children are understated, flawed, and tremendously real. If you have the stomach for an absolutely heartbreaking ending, read this book -- it's richer and more resonant than you might realize at first.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.