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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | FICTION

TALES OF BURNING LOVE By Louise Erdrich; HarperCollins: 452 pp., $25

December 29, 1996|VERLYN KLINKENBORG

"Tales of Burning Love," a comic, expansive book, begins with the same story of doomed courtship that opens "Love Medicine," Erdrich's first novel, except that it is told through a different set of eyes. That story ends with June Kashpaw dying in an Easter snowstorm. In "Love Medicine," June's death haunts everyone. But in "Tales of Burning Love," her death haunts only Jack Mauser, the man who married her under a false name and who watched her flee, after a few hours of marriage, from their motel room into the thickening storm.

Mauser is a Gulliver shipwrecked on a coast of women. He has had--although he isn't sure what tense to use when he thinks about it--five wives. So many marriages to such vital women is a puzzle to everyone. In "Tales," it happens that four of Jack's five ex-wives end up trapped together in a car all night long during a freak blizzard.

To keep themselves awake and thus alive, the Mauser wives try to solve the puzzle of Jack's marriages. "The real question is this," says [former wife] Eleanor. "If he was so ultra-normal, so banal, so pathetically male, why did any of us agree to marry him?"

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