The Boston Phoenix
March 18 - 25, 1999

[Book Reviews]

| literary calendar | authors in town | events by location | reviews | hot links |

Familiar formula

Oprah jackpot winner Chris Bohjalian delivers a disappointing follow-up

by Megan Harlan

THE LAW OF SIMILARS, by Chris Bohjalian. Harmony Books, 275 pages, $23.

Chris Bohjalian Last year, Chris Bohjalian possessed the great good fortune to have his fifth novel, Midwives, picked for the writers' sweepstakes known as Oprah's Book Club. Without turning this review into a disquisition on Oprah's picks, I'll just note that Midwives is not a Toni Morrison-caliber book, but sits firmly in the Jacquelyn Mitchard camp: middlebrow fiction more aptly lauded for its craftsmanship than for its literary artistry.

Midwives presents a somewhat alarmist scenario of a midwife delivery gone hideously wrong and the lawsuit that naturally follows. In The Law of Similars, Bohjalian puts another type of alternative medicine on trial: homeopathy.

The author provides a crash course on homeopathy for readers -- like me -- who come to his book with only the vaguest understanding of this system. Unlike midwifery or herbalism, homeopathy is not an ancient medical tradition, tried and tested over millennia of human experience. Instead, it began in the early 19th century, when French scientist Samuel Hahnemann developed a healing philosophy called "the law of similars" -- essentially, the idea that like cures like. Homeopaths thus administer a substance that in large quantities could prove lethal, but that in minuscule dosages will faintly mimic the symptoms a patient is already suffering. This will, in theory, strengthen the body. Common homeopathic remedies include highly diluted solutions of scary substances like belladonna and poison ivy.

Whether or not you suspect homeopathy to be "incredible quackery" -- as Leland Fowler, the novel's central character and narrator, first dubs it -- the subject itself seems a thematic and metaphorical gold mine for a novelist. And what a lost opportunity that Bohjalian plods steadily along the surface of his subject -- here indicting homeopathy, there giving it the benefit of the doubt with a cursory fairness -- when he could have mirrored or explored the philosophy of homeopathy through his characters' psychological and moral struggles. But even given its page-turner plot, the novel lacks a driving purpose and undergirding logic.

Leland Fowler, by his own admission, is not the kind of guy to confer with a homeopath. He is a churchgoing 35-year-old deputy state's attorney living in an idyllic village outside Burlington, Vermont. Since his wife died in a car accident two years earlier -- leaving him to raise their daughter, now age four, alone -- Leland has become a lonely, overworked man beleaguered by the challenges of single parenthood.

But Leland's real troubles begin when he develops a cold -- a painful sore throat and runny nose that he just can't shake. After several weeks of discomfort, he goes to his doctor, who reminds him that there is no cure for the common cold. Leland grudgingly resorts to trying some herbal remedies, and it is at a health-food store that he learns of Carissa Lake, the town's "very talented" homeopath. Out of desperation, he makes an appointment.

The attractive, coolly professional Carissa -- a licensed psychologist who's practiced homeopathy for eight years -- asks Leland some personal questions, rather as a psychologist would. She prescribes a remedy -- arsenic -- that gives him a euphoric high and almost instantly cures his cold. Leland, thrilled and amazed, asks Carissa out, and the two spend a passionate Christmas Eve together.

Meanwhile, one of Carissa's patients, Richard, an asthmatic, has fallen into a coma -- and Richard's wife holds Carissa responsible. Carissa had apparently told Richard to stop taking his prescribed asthma medicine because it was an "antidote" to the homeopathic remedy. Even worse, Carissa had joked with Richard that he should try eating cashews -- to which he is deathly allergic. When he was discovered brain-dead on his kitchen floor, Richard was clutching a bag of the killer nuts.

With the police asking questions, Carissa confides her plight to Leland, who masterminds a plot to cover up any wrongdoing on her part, as well as evidence of their own relationship. As a state's attorney, of course, Leland is breaking the law. And so, through flash-forwards in the first few chapters, the "issue" of homeopathy is introduced, inspiring questions the novel is meant to answer. Is Carissa Lake to blame for Richard's death? Was Leland really cured by Carissa's arsenic, or was his response psychosomatic? Should homeopathy be regulated in all 50 states?

But the question that seems most relevant to a novel -- rather than, say, a Dateline NBC segment -- is this: Why would Richard put his career and his daughter's stability on the line for a woman he barely knows? Unfortunately, the answer is murky.

One problem is that Bohjalian sets up Carissa as a simplistic stereotype -- the Earth Mother healer, an earnest, enlightened soul in a peasant skirt. That she would, in jest, tell a patient to eat a food he is direly allergic to seems absurdly out of character, considering how she is presented.

But since this story is told from Leland's perspective, it's crucial that we understand why he would risk his credibility for this woman he's slept with only once. All that's made clear is that Leland was grateful that Carissa relieved his sexual loneliness and cured his cold.

Bohjalian's overriding concern here seems to be to create a complex plot, full of twists and turns that evoke the slippery slopes of moral conundrums. If only Bohjalian -- who seems, underneath the slick tone, an intelligent writer -- had brought the same complexity to his characterizations. Then you might have a novel that didn't obey the familiar law of formulaic fiction.

Megan Harlan is a freelance writer living in New York.


| home page | what's new | search | about the phoenix | feedback |
Copyright © 1999 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group. All rights reserved.