Are our lives woven from old scores and past betrayals, or are we "working out the minor details of a strictly random pattern?" This philosophical chestnut is at the heart of Louise Erdrich's latest novel, "The Antelope Wife," a sprawling tale of two Native American (Ojibwa) families, the Roys and Shawanos. Although Erdrich clearly wants to create an overarching picture spanning several generations, she devotes the lion's share of her attention to the story of Rozin Roy. Rozin falls hopelessly in love with baker Frank Shawano, and the affair has tragic consequences for her husband and twin daughters.
What surprises, again and again, is how dead on Erdrich is when she seizes upon the right metaphor. One of those inspired metaphors is blitzkuchen -- "the cake of all cakes," which Shawano's father first tasted and became enthralled with during World War II. Frank's life quest is to perfect his blitzkuchen recipe, but the cake never lives up to that initial rapturous encounter. When Frank serves the German cake at his wedding to Rozin, Rozin's former husband maliciously suggests the dessert was poisoned. "The crowd began to taste the cake, exclaiming as they did, nervously, in trepidation, but unable to resist the next bite after the first, the next and next delicate-yet-dense bite of blitzkuchen. And so it was, so the secret was discovered. The final and the missing ingredient -- fear."
Not all of Erdrich's scenes are so successful. It's perhaps too easy to fault writers who have as distinctive a style as Erdrich's for sometimes sounding like lousy imitations of themselves. Then again, when Erdrich's trademark prose disappoints, she's embarrassing -- silly and trite. Some of her phrases are lyrical but meaningless, like "earthen earth" or "Unmasked, the woman's stage glance broke across Roy's brow like fire." Still others are precious and New Agey: "Her daughters danced out of black mist in the shimmering caves of their hair." And here's how Erdrich describes a pregnancy: "the tiny knock of new life began in the cradle of her hipbones." Oh, please.
Clunkers notwithstanding, "The Antelope Wife" is a satisfying whole, with plenty of blitzkuchen moments and an intriguing exploration of continuity vs. chaos. Her tightly constructed scenes reflect patterns repeated with each generation of Roy and Shawano, subtly suggesting a grand design. And Erdrich delivers 10 or 12 images so fitting that they transform her carefully woven prose into something as mysterious and sublime as sugar with a hint of fear.