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Shadow Tag
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Shadow Tag

2.7 33
by Louise Erdrich

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“Erdrich is a true original… [and] one of our major writers.” —Washington Post Book World

Shadow Tag, the brilliant new novel by Louise Erdrich, is a stunning tour-de-force from the National Book Critics Circle Award–winning and New York Times–bestselling author of Love Medicine and Pulitzer-Prize-finalist The Plague of Doves.<


“Erdrich is a true original… [and] one of our major writers.” —Washington Post Book World

Shadow Tag, the brilliant new novel by Louise Erdrich, is a stunning tour-de-force from the National Book Critics Circle Award–winning and New York Times–bestselling author of Love Medicine and Pulitzer-Prize-finalist The Plague of Doves. In the vein of the novels of such contemporaries as Zoe Heller and Susan Minot, Shadow Tag is an intense and heart-wrenching story of a troubled marriage and a family in disarray—and a radical departure from Erdrich’s previous acclaimed work.

"Here is the most telling fact: you wish to possess me.

Here is another fact: I loved you and let you think you could."

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.

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
…a tense little masterpiece of marital strife that recalls [Erdrich's] tragic relationship with the poet Michael Dorris. Gossips will trace the story's parallels to the author's life, but for all its voyeuristic temptations, Shadow Tag is no roman a clef, no act of spousal revenge on her estranged husband, who committed suicide in 1997. Instead, Erdrich has done what so many writers can't or won't do in this age of self-exposure: transform her own wrenching experience into a captivating work of fiction that says far more about the universal tragedy of spoiled love than it reveals about her private life.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Erdrich's bleak latest (after The Plague of Doves) chronicles the collapse of a family. Irene America is a beautiful, introspective woman of Native American ancestry, struggling to finish her dissertation while raising three children. She is married to Gil, a painter whose reputation is built on a series of now iconic portraits of Irene, but who can't break through to the big time, pigeonholed as a Native American painter. Irene's fallen out of love with Gil and discovers that he's been reading her diary, so she begins a new, hidden, diary and uses her original diary as a tool to manipulate Gil. Erdrich deftly alternates between excerpts from these two diaries and third-person narration as she plots the emotional war between Irene and Gil, and Gil's dark side becomes increasingly apparent as Irene, fighting her own alcoholism, struggles to escape. Erdrich ties her various themes together with an intriguing metaphor—riffing on Native American beliefs about portraits as shadows and shadows as souls—while her steady pacing and remarkable insight into the inner lives of children combine to make this a satisfying and compelling novel. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Irene America is a smart, beautiful Minneapolis Ojibwe. Too distracted to finish her doctoral degree, she musters the emotional resources needed to keep two journals. The "Red Diary" is bait, filled with adulterous scenes that Irene uses to push volatile artist husband Gil close enough to the brink that he'll leave her. She unleashes all her rage and frustration in the "Blue Notebook," which she keeps in a bank deposit box. Meanwhile, Gil believes that his obsessive graphic paintings of Irene will somehow lure her back to him. Caught in the crosshairs of their parents' cruel, messy unraveling are 13-year-old Florian, a genius who models his mother's excessive drinking habits; Riel, 11, who believes that only she can hold her disintegrating family together; and sunny little Stoney. VERDICT Erdrich's latest is a brilliant cautionary tale of the shocking havoc willfully destructive, self-centered spouses wreak not only upon themselves but also upon their children. Reading it is like watching a wildfire whose flames are so mesmerizingly beautiful that it's almost easy to ignore the deadly mess left behind. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/09.]—Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Kirkus Reviews
Taking a risky leap, Erdrich sets aside the magical-realist style of her many volumes about the Ojibwes (The Red Convertible, 2008 etc.) to write a domestic tragedy set among sophisticated, assimilated, highly educated and successful Native Americans. Gil and Irene live with their kids Florian, Riel and Stony in a seemingly idyllic home in Minneapolis. Gil is a renowned painter, Irene the subject of his graphically revealing portraits. Also a gifted historian, she is currently doing research for her doctorate dissertation about the painter George Catlin. Self-consciously aware of their heritage, Gil (raised in poverty by his white mother after his Native American father's death in Vietnam) and Irene (given a middle-class upbringing by her AIM activist mother) know that observers consider them an iconic couple. But Gil has a habit of brutalizing the children he cherishes, and Irene cannot relinquish the glass of wine always in her hand to protect them. When Irene realizes that Gil has been reading her diary, she feels her soul has been invaded. She begins writing entries to play with his mind, torturing him about an affair he imagines she is having. Obsessed with his love for Irene, Gil thinks that he wants to save the marriage. Irene thinks that she wants to free herself from Gil. Both are lying to themselves. Erdrich's unsparing prose dissects these two deeply flawed characters to show their ugliest selves, yet she allows them each their moments of joy and spiritual respite alone, together and with their children. Into this deeply personal novel about marriage, family and individual identity, she also weaves broader questions about cause and effect in history-specifically the effectCatlin's painting of Native Americans had on them and on him-that resonate within her characters' lives. Readers familiar with Erdrich's personal life may suspect she has written close to the bone here, but she manages the rare achievement of rising above the facts she has incorporated to create a small masterpiece of compelling, painfully moving fiction.
Baltimore Sun
“Read this if: You’re looking for a well-written, well-told tale that is thought- and discussion- provoking.”
Boston Sunday Globe
“A fast-paced novel of exceptional artistic, intellectual, and psychological merit…Nowhere have love’s complications been better illustrated than in the raw honesty of Shadow Tag.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Erdrich offers a portrait that’s convincing…Shadow Tag is wonderfully, painfully readable and revealing.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“A domestic drama that builds an almost thriller-like momentum…A novel as dark and tragic as it is difficult to put down”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“SHADOW TAG is hard to put down...It builds to a spectacular ending with a twist I didn’t see coming...Erdrich has taken a tragedy and turned it into art.”
Miami Herald
“SHADOW TAG is compelling…a searing, personal examination of one family that’s falling apart.”
Dallas Morning News
“A page-turner…a most compelling novel”
Columbus Dispatch
“ A fierce novel…raw…alive…vividly present…it marks a breakthrough for the author.”
“Muscular and fearless…It is [Erdrich’s] superb telling of this story that makes it real, her stellar writing that brings powerful truth to invented worlds.”
USA Today
“Gripping…a hushed and haunting tale.”
New York Times Book Review
“A portrait of an ‘iconic’ marriage on its way to dissolution…Erdrich’s unbridled urgency yields startlingly original phrasing as well as flashes of blinding lucidity.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Clear, urgent, deep as a swift river…accomplishes the literary miracle of making a reader ravenous to finish it, while stinging with regret at how soon it must end.”
Donna Seaman
“An exquisite, character-driven tale…its piercing insights into sex, family, and power are breathtaking…A masterfully concentrated and gripping novel of image and conquest, autonomy and love, inheritance and loss.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.92(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.96(d)

Read an Excerpt

Shadow Tag

A Novel
By Louise Erdrich

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2010 Louise Erdrich
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061536090

November 2, 2007

Blue Notebook

I have two diaries now. The first is the hardbound red Daily Reminder of the type I have been writing in since 1994, when we had Florian. You gave me the first book in order to record my beginning year as a mother. It was very sweet of you. I have written in a book like it ever since. They are hidden in the bottom of a drawer in my office, covered with ribbons and wrapping paper. The latest, the one that interests you at present, is kept in the very back of a file cabinet containing old bank statements, checks left over from defunct accounts, the sorts of things we both vow to shred every year but end up stuffing into files. After quite a lot of searching, I expect, you have found my red diary. You have been reading it in order to discover whether I am deceiving you.

The second diary, what you might call my real diary, is the one I am writing in now.

Today I left the house and drove to the branch of the Wells Fargo Bank that is located in uptown Minneapolis beneath the Sons of Norway Hall. I parked in the customer lot and walked in, through two sets of glass doors, down a spiral staircase, to the safedepositdesk. I tapped a little bell and a woman named Janice appeared. She assisted me in the purchase of a medium-size security box. I paid cash for a year's rental and signed my name, three times for signature verification, on the deposit-box card. I took the key Janice offered. She matched my key to another key and let me into the safe-deposit area. After we slid my box from its place in the wall, she ushered me into one of three private little closets, each containing no more than a desk-height shelf and chair. I closed the door to my private room and removed this blue notebook from the big black leather bag that you gave me for Christmas. Ten or fifteen minutes passed before I could begin. My heart was beating so fast. I couldn't tell if I was experiencing panic, grief, or, possibly, happiness.

As soon as the sound of Irene's car motor vanished into the general low din of the city, Gil sat up. The towel he used to shade his eyes slipped off his face. He often lay down on his studio couch when he needed to refresh his eyes, and sometimes dozed off. He could sleep there for as long as an hour, but more often he jerked awake after fifteen minutes, refreshed and startled, as though he'd been dipped in a cool undergroundstream. He sat up patting for his eyeglasses, which he sometimes balanced on his chest. Sure enough, the wire ovals had fallen onto the floor. He retrieved them, hooked them behind his ears. His thick hair started low on his brow and he swept it straight back, smoothed and retied his short, gray ponytail. He stepped up to the painting of his wife and regarded it. His eyes were close-set, cold, curious, and dark. He pressed a knuckle to his chin. His thin cheeks were flecked with yellow paint.

He peered at Irene's likeness, then he frowned and looked away, blinking like a person who can't quite make out some figure in the distance. Suddenly he bent over, and added a few tense strokes. He stood back, wrapped his brush in an oiled cloth, then put the brush and palette into a Ziploc bag. He deposited the bag in a small refrigerator. Descending hungrily, he left his studio and went downstairs to the kitchen. He took the one can of Coke he allowed himself per day from the refrigerator. Sipping, he descended the rest of the way and entered his wife's basement office. He went at once to the sand-colored metal file cabinet and opened a drawer labeled Old Accts.

November 1, 2007

Red Diary

What an odd day this is with the house so empty and Gil upstairs endlessly reworking a painting. I expect he is having trouble asking me to sit for him again. Flo and Stoney are okay now after fever. Riel never gets sick, but she is having a difficult time at school this year. Stoney is making a board game for some afterschool project that involves the habits of black bears. Very Minnesota. I think I'm going to lose my mind over what I'm doing.

He actually thought he could feel the blood drain from his heart when he read those words. I think I'm going to lose my mind over what I'm doing. He put his head down on the cool oak of Irene's desk, but then thought, as he always did when he came across some hidden reference to the other man, what the hell did I expect? I let myself in for this. I looked for this. He tried to discipline his reaction, and forced himself to consider other explanations: she could be referring to her history thesis. Or that old article on Louis Riel. Before the children, she had published several pieces that were considered brilliant; she was a very promising scholar. Her work had included new material that shed light on Riel's mental states. She'd kept working after Florian was born. But after she became pregnant again, she had abandoned her work—except that she'd named their daughter after the depressed Metis patriot, a man to whom his own family was distantly related. Riel was eleven. And now that Stoney was in first grade, Irene was trying to finish her Ph.D. thesis, so that she could start looking for a job. Her subject was now the nineteenth-century painter of Native Americana George Catlin.

Perhaps she was suffering from academic frustration? Losing her mind—over George Catlin's clumsy, repetitive, earnest depictions of people—all of whom would sicken and die soon after. Gil himself could not bear to look at Catlin's work. The tragic irony of it offended him. And for Irene, a poor excuse....


Excerpted from Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich Copyright © 2010 by Louise Erdrich. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Ron Charles
“A masterpiece…a captivating work of fiction…exquisite…tightly focused…arresting…This profoundly tragic novel captures that lament in some of Erdrich’s most beautiful and urgent writing.”
Donna Seaman
“An exquisite, character-driven tale…its piercing insights into sex, family, and power are breathtaking…A masterfully concentrated and gripping novel of image and conquest, autonomy and love, inheritance and loss.”

Meet the Author

Louise Erdrich is the author of fifteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novel The Round House won the National Book Award for Fiction. The Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and her debut novel, Love Medicine, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Erdrich has received the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the prestigious PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.

Brief Biography

Minneapolis, Minnesota
Date of Birth:
June 7, 1954
Place of Birth:
Little Falls, Minnesota
B.A., Dartmouth College, 1976; M.A., Johns Hopkins University, 1979

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Shadow Tag 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 33 reviews.
switterbug More than 1 year ago
I was floored that Louise Erdrich did not win the Pulitzer this year for her magnum opus, Plague of Doves. That novel doubtlessly cemented her as a peerless wordsmith and unrivaled postmodern writer of satire cum tragedy. Her dazzling metaphors-pataphors, actually, place her in a pedigree by herself. She combines ripples of Philip Roth, undertones of Nabakov and the mythical, regional realism of Faulkner. Her locale is often within the Ojibwe Native populations of North Dakota, as in The Beet Queen and Love Medicine (as well as Plague of Doves). She has mastered the multiple-narrative voice, braiding multi-generations of families into an innovative whole. In a striking departure from her previous work, Erdrich's Shadow Tag is a psychological examination of a marriage and family on the brittle brink of decay. Instead of the focus being on ancestral histories and buried secrets, the focus is on one family-Gil and Irene and their three young children-and their private devastations. Gil is an artist who achieved substantial success painting portraits of Irene, some of them deeply disturbing. Irene has resumed her doctoral thesis on a 19th century Native American painter whose subjects have died soon after being painted. This provides a stunning metaphor and theme for the title, Shadow Tag, a game where each person tries to step on the others' shadow, while protecting their own. Native peoples believe that their shadow is their soul. To step on their shadow or to paint their portrait is to steal their soul. Irene is one-half native and Gil is one-quarter, a fact that adds a personal engagement with the lore. Gil possesses a stealthy, dangerous charm; he is haunted by jealousy and lashes out physically at their son, Florian. Irene, a tall, arresting beauty, drinks wine like water and keeps two diaries. She leaves a false, incendiary Red Diary for Gil to find (she is meting out punishment for his invasion of her privacy) and the true Blue one hidden in a bank vault. Gil and Irene inflict mental, emotional, and physical pain on each other as they struggle individually to maintain control. Although narrated in the third person, the unreliable voices of Gil and Irene are woven in variously--through their introspection; by Irene's diaries; and from the children's uncertainties. The shocking candor of their actions is mired in dark motivation and murky intentions. A maddening cat and mouse game ensues; the Muse is a jealous mistress and will not be ignored. As Gil agitates over his final portrait of Irene, and Irene skillfully undermines Gil, a menacing cloud is cast over the family. Erdrich controls her narrative with razor precision, deftly restraining and then escalating the spaces between words to arouse and intensify the reading experience. The prose is starkly sensuous, lean and taut, nuanced but inflammatory. The characters connect with a singed, bitter bite and a sable, blighted love. If you require "likeable" characters that are moral exemplars, this novel is not for you. However, if you want to sink your teeth into a bald and naked exploration of a shattered marriage, etched with moral ambiguity, you will not be disappointed. Moreover, the ending will stagger you with its poetic brilliance. It is one of the most thought-provoking final pages I have experienced in eons. A mouth-watering treat for literature lovers.
rossberliner More than 1 year ago
Louise Erdrich's new novel, Shadow Tag, has a strong resemblance to the author's life story but not identical at all. Ms Erdrich writes well as usual but there is one serious flaw in this work. The leading fermale character is a selfish, confused, grating and dissatisfied woman with whom the reader looks for reasons to care about. The opposite occurs and the husband is not written fully enough to be more than a catalyst character. A negative heroine is not unusual but does not work when the author is attempting to create someone whom the reader may not like but fully understands. Understanding the heroine is not easy here and therein lies the problem in Shadow Tag.
eak321 More than 1 year ago
In SHADOW TAG, Irene discovers that her husband Gil has been reading her diary, so she begins a new hidden diary and uses her original diary as a tool to manipulate him. Having been the victim of privacy theft with regard to my diary/journal, the premise of the novel sounded promising, intriguing, and relatable. However, I was disappointed that there were very few diary entries, as this was how I expected the story to unfold. Furthermore, what few diary entries there were weren't written very believably; they were written more like a person telling a story, which isn't how a person actually writes entries in a diary. In addition to the diaries, there's an underlying layer of existing marital discord. Gil is abusive; Irene is a drunk. Apparently, that makes them perfect for each other, because -- to borrow a line from Brokeback Mountain -- they just can't quit each other. Unfortunately, unlike Jack and Ennis, neither Gil nor Irene have any likeable traits, which meant that there wasn't a single likeable main character in the novel. Gil is an artist; Irene is his muse and model. Maybe it's the artist in them, but both Gil and Irene seemed overly dramatic and/or melodramatic in their dialogue and actions. Finally, this novel is all about reflections and/or the ponderings of the characters; there are little scenes of actual moments of action where something occurs. While it was a quick read, what could have been told in a short story, the author chose to drag out into a novel-length book. The extraneous details didn't reveal much more and did little to move the story along, engross the reader, or let the reader learn more about the characters. In short, you can tell that I was not crazy for this book. Skip it and check out something great like Water for Elephants instead. Note to author: I know you're a published, established author with a number of books published in the double digits, but I have a plea. In a society where texting, Tweeting, and Facebook are the norm for young adults, don't make them feel that it's acceptable to never learn proper English grammar. One of my biggest pet peeves in novels is the use of "creative license" grammar. That is, authors write with total disregard of proper grammatical rules. Case in point, not using quotation marks to frame words spoken by the characters. This is extremely evident in SHADOW TAG when the author combines character's dialogue with the character's actions in a single paragraph. Example: Stoney painted a scene for a play, Gil. That's a cool thing for a six-year-old to do. Irene took some salad, and then said in a more ingratiating tone, Your souffle is amazing. You're a great cook! How it should read: "Stoney painted a scene for a play, Gil. That's a cool thing for a six-year-old to do." Irene took some salad, and then said in a more ingratiating tone, "Your souffle is amazing. You're a great cook!" Seriously, authors: please use quotation marks. Not using them just makes me, the reader, feel as though you put yourself above the rest of us and that makes me dislike you and any and all novels you write.
BillPilgrim More than 1 year ago
This is a close and detailed portrait of a family, parents and three children, that is in the process of breaking up. The mother, Irene, has not been happy in her marriage since before her youngest, who is now six, was born. She has reached her tipping point and is ready to end things, but she is having difficulty doing it. She needs to and tries to convince her husband that it is time to break up, but he is trying desperately to hold on, continually professing his love for his wife and planning futile tactics to hold things together. When she realizes that he has been reading her diary, she starts to write entries designed to lead him to the decision to let her go. We read those entries and also a separate diary the is her "real diary," which she keeps in her safe deposit box. But, the bulk of the book is a narrative written by an unidentified third party. I would not recommend this book for anyone who is now going through or has experienced a difficult breakup. I found myself reliving aspects of my own pain while reading this description of the pain of others, which feels so real and deep. There is a bit of comic relief; it is not all sad and heavy. There are a couple of amusing scenes with the couple and their therapist. Also, the middle child and only daughter gets some focus, and she is rediscovering her Native American roots and planning for survival in case of a disaster, such as an attack by terrorists or vampires, etc. And, despite their many differences the couple still finds it possible to use the forces that do drive them together to find intermittent happiness.
Catspaw More than 1 year ago
I had hoped that this book would be so much more than it was. I don't need the "happy ending" and lovable characters derided in some other reviews. What I do need is some semblance of a plot, or someone that I can relate to in some small way. Instead, the book is maudlin and meandering, and told in an affectless tone that tends to disengage the reader from the characters. It's hard to feel any of the advertised tension or suspense, or even empathy, when you don't really give a d*mn about any of the characters. Adding to the sense of a tale being told at one remove, the dialog isn't in quotes for some reason, making it occasionally difficult to distinguish thought from speech. Which isn't as bad as it sounds, since you really don't care what happens anyway. The story itself is less interesting than the synopsis suggests. It's the story of a dysfunctionally married couple, and marginally, thier three children. The parents torment one another, and they and the children live with the tension and fallout. Et boring cetera for many long pages. They say that every unhappy family is unhappy in it's own way, but this delved into every dismal little detail with a self indulgence that's masturbatory. There's a very little bit of a payoff at the end, but it's not worth the long and depressing journey.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a huge disappointment. Having read most novels produced by LE during the 1990s I was looking forward to a well-spun tale. Instead I found a highly contrived narrative inspired more it seems, by the need to fill some zeitgeisty gap required by the editors than sticking to enchanting and entertaining her readers. The mother and her duplicity was dislikable, the father equally so - and this was just alienating, it undermined my trust in the story and removed any chance of any emotional investment that may have otherwise taken place. The kids were barely constructed one dimensional figures that sort of wafted in the background. It was unrealistic how little these children were involved in the actions and days of the parents and the ending was just silly, it didn't ring true to life, or the characters established and was worthy only of a schlock paperback to be cast aside after a long delay in the airport.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DON'T WASTE YOUR MONEY on this one. I kept reading thinking it would be better. It was depressing, poorly written and contained characters the reader doesn't care about. She should save trees and stop writing books.
Beachcomber More than 1 year ago
Nicely written yet a sad downer. Some material so true. I was surprised.
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rovanli More than 1 year ago
Louise Erdrich has lost none of her craft at developing interesting characters and letting the reader know what motivates them by telling us their inner thoughts and what drives them to do what they do and don't do and why; she's very adept at conveying their inner turmoils, doubts, and sense of losses they feel but either can't or won't address openly. You know thing's are coming to a head, but how and when...the reader is compelled to find out. A+++++
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