By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
April 27, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s a tricky business, the matter of writing fiction in this day and age. Which do you crave more: the fortune that comes with best-seller lists and talk-show appearances, or the possibly unnoticed but laudable experience of telling an original story?

There are a handful of writers, many of them women, who have managed to do the latter and stumble upon the former, Barbara Kingsolver being perhaps the most successful. Two others are Louise Erdrich and Anita Shreve, novelists whose phenomenal sales have allowed them to toast their critical success with caviar and champagne; Erdrich with books like Love Medicine and The Beet Queen, Shreve with The Weight of Water and Oprah’s Book Club pick The Pilot’s Wife.

In their new novels, Shreve’s The Last Time They Met and Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, both authors draw upon characters from their past work, and both seem forever destined — judging from their publicity machines alone — for orchestra seats on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. But only one deserves to be there.

Let’s get the bad news over with first. Shreve’s The Last Time They Met is as overwritten, gloppy, and lazy as the Danielle Steel-like title would suggest. In her 50s, recently widowed and alienated from her children, popular poet Linda Fallon remeets her former lover, the haunted (natch) and brilliant (double natch) fellow poet Thomas Janes. Readers who found Janes an artfully rendered character in Shreve’s dark emotional thriller The Weight of Water will wish he had never come ashore from Water‘s cursed sailing trip, if only to avoid the embarrassment of descriptions like the following: As Linda watches Thomas emerge from the water in wet boxers, she remarks, ”They hung low on his thighs when he came out and molded his genitals, which had grown longer in the intervening years.”

It’s a given that since this is a romance novel, Linda and Thomas must revisit, rehash, and resolve a past that involves car accidents, Kenya, Catholicism, incest, the death of children, and any other horror that Shreve can pull out of her guide-to-a-miserable-life grab bag. Last Time has a brief renaissance when Shreve switches to Janes’ voice; writing as a man, she manages to lose much of the flowery prose that lends the book a hysterical, shrill pitch. But then it’s back to both characters in an exchange that reminds us why all love letters should remain private, followed by a nonsensical and ludicrous conclusion.

Where Last Time‘s tenor is over-the-top, Last Report is meditative and almost dreamlike in its languorous, distant tone, which is all the more ironic since Erdrich’s story is about as over-the-top as they come. Here we return to the extraordinary life of Father Damien (he has also appeared in Erdrich’s Tracks and Love Medicine), a priest who has tended to a Native American reservation for almost the whole of the 20th century. But Damien is, in fact, a woman who, after losing her lover, disavows her gender to find God. Through Damien, we meet the priest’s flock, a group of loopy and endearing characters who live caught between tradition and modernism, embracing both the word of God and the whispers of ancient spirits. Interwoven through the novel is an unsolved murder, but Erdrich’s gift lies in unraveling characters rather than mysteries, and in her stunning, off-the-cuff descriptions (a horse is ”old and made of brutal velvet”).

Ultimately, Erdrich’s book is not as wondrous as some of its parts. Because of its almost too respectful investigation of what drives the heart, we never quite get under the skin of the characters, a problem when the book’s central figure has made a stunning decision we never fully understand. And when, two thirds of the way through the novel, a scene arrives that induces riotous laughter, we are reminded not only of Erdrich’s great sense of humor but of the fact that it has not leapt into the pages earlier.

Still, Erdrich brings such glory and reverence to the stuff of everyday lives that we forgive much. As for Shreve, a hopeful reader will likely feel similar to an Erdrich character who laments, ”You can go up to a certain point with me…but then the line might snap. My loving goes very deep unless you cross that boundary, do to me what I will not tolerate.” May no reader be forced to tolerate such muck.
The Last Time They Met: C-
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse: B