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.
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:
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
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
Megan Harlan is a freelance writer living in New York.