Irene America is the mother of three, a historian unable to finish either of the dissertations she has started, an alcoholic, and the muse for her artist husband Gil. Gil has painted dozens of nudes of Irene, often depicting her in degrading situations that he claims represent the treatment of Native Americans. These paintings have made him a moderate success in the art world, but at home he is abusive; the family dogs must often intervene to stop him from hurting the children or Irene. As the novel opens, Gil is desperate to hold onto his marriage and is reading Irene's diaries (and occasionally following her or enlisting friends to do so) because he is convinced she is having an affair. Irene, desperate to leave the marriage but afraid to do so because Gil has threatened to take the children away from her, has started keeping two journals--one for Gil's consumption and one authentic reflection of her thoughts. Entries from the journals make up part of the novel's text, along with narratives from the perspectives of Gil, Irene, their daughter Riel, and an omniscient narrator (whose identity is revealed at the end of the book).
Through Gil and Irene's individual reflections, as well as the arguments in which they engage, Erdrich discusses art and inspiration, kitsch, the effects of being raised with or without an attachment to native culture, and various other topics. But the core concern is why two people who no longer love each other and by staying together only hurt each other--and their children-- still cannot find a way to disengage. Given Erdrich's personal story, one wonders how much of the terrifying psychological warfare is based on experience. Much of the book is heart-rending, in particular the descriptions of how the children try to cope with the chaos in their home.
There is no point in the novel where the reader believes the ending can be happy--it's only a question of how bad it will be, and it's very bad. Yet I couldn't put the book down and will remember it for a long time.
To have meaning, history must consist of both occurrence and narrative. If she never told, if he never told, if the two of them never talked about it, there was no narrative. So the act,though it had occurred, was meaningless. It did not count as infidelity. It did not count at all.
Riel went back into her room and pulled her comforter back over her head. She thought of Mahtotohpa's tragic loyalty and came to a conclusion. In the event of a disaster, she would have to take charge. She would have to find a way to save her family. What she had read convinced her again that anything could happen. All through history, this was proven--the worst imaginable things really did come true.