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The Law Of Similars

Harmony Books, division of Random House, 1999, hardback, $23.00. ISBN 0-517-70586-9

Book ReviewReview by Randall Neustaedter, OMD, LAc

What is the best thing that could happen to homeopathy? A homeopath is elected to the US Senate? Already happened (Dr. Royal Copeland—1923--38). The President announces his support of homeopathic medicine? Old news (President Garfield and President McKinley). Secretary of State? (William Seward appointed by Abraham Lincoln.) How about a best-selling author writes a sympathetic novel with a homeopathic practitioner as heroine? Now that would help the cause.

     Bring on Chris Bohjalian and his new novel, The Law of Similars. For those unfamiliar with the vicissitudes of New York publishing, Bohjalian's previous novel, Midwives, was picked by Oprah as a book of the month selection, which sent Bohjalian's fifth novel soaring for a prolonged stay into the rarefied atmosphere of the New York Times bestseller list. 

     The Law of Similars seems destined for the same territory. After only two months it went into its sixth printing and had already made the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list and the New York Times extended list. This is headline news because Bohjalian is a homeopathic sympathizer, and no newcomer to the realm of alternative practitioners. A previous novel, Water Witches, concerns a highly respected dowser, Midwives champions the cause of home birth, and now The Law of Similars further imbeds homeopathy into the national consciousness. All of these books have strong and resolute women as their central characters.

     When I taught homeopathic courses, I would request that my students view the latest hit movie at the theaters and then speculate on the characters' remedies. This character takes the next leap and speculates, or obsesses, about his own remedy that the homeopath may prescribe. Homeopath and author Catherine Coulter peppers her materia medica lectures with illustrations from the world's literature, but Bohjalian creates a living homeopathic character. Bravo. 

     He also explains the intricacies of homeopathic methodology from the layman's pont of view. Bohjalian has done his homework, and it allows him to slip into the mind of a homeopathic patient with a convincing portrayal. He includes the anxiety of seeing an alternative practitioner, the intimidating process of baring one's soul to the homeopath, and the uncertainty about taking remedies that bear the names of dreadful poisons. 

     Bohjalian presents an accurate picture of classical homeopathy, even if he does make some prescribing errors. Leland Fowler, the narrator and main character, is depicted before his remedy as an arguably good study in Natrum mur, silently grieving over his wife's death in a car accident, romantically dedicated to his newfound love, dutifully bound to his daughter's upbringing, unable to urinate in a public place, and even irrationally afraid of spiders. Unfortunately, he's decided on his own, and his homeopath has concurred, that his remedy is Arsenicum despite a lack of meticulous obsessions, any significant cowardliness, or hypermania or fear of death. People who need Arsenicum can be entertaining, even comical characters in their terrified concern over trifles. Leland Fowler is considered, deliberate, and careful—not flighty, paranoid and whimsical—until he gets his remedy. He even describes a sexual episode in an oddly romantic and clinical Natrum mur-ish fashion and relives it in memory with typical Natrum mur nostalgia as well. Arsenic sounds more literary and dramatic, however, than table salt.

     But these are quibbling points only a homeopath would recognize. Does the author depict homeopathy accurately? Yes, even down to the fanatical prohibition against coffee and menthol. Hahnemann's precepts grace the start of every new chapter, and his vitalistic philosophy permeates the novel. 

     If our main character's constitutional remedy is Natrum mur, once he begins proving Arsenicum he takes on that remedy's symptoms in spades. Here's a taste of a near perfect description of Arsenicum jitters. "My body ... had become a mass of tingles and bowel spasms, my stomach a fishbowl on the seat of a speedboat." His paranoid assumptions and anxious ruminations become vintage Arsenicum, confirmed by the old adage, "I'm not paranoid, they really are out to get me."

     Bohjalian chooses a leisurely pace to portray a morality tale which carries a particularly cautionary message. The story revolves around the blundering mistakes of the three characters at the center of this book. Leland, the careful lawyer, risks ruining his career and his daughter's life with a reckless decision. The homeopath gives very stupid advice to a patient she sees in a health food store, advice that could kill him. And the patient decides to eat a cashew that he knows from experience causes severe allergic reactions while he's already suffering a nocturnal asthma episode and can barely breathe. Accepting all of these blunders is a stretch for the reader. For the homeopath, or any health care practitioner, the dire consequences of keeping inadequate case records and making careless remarks should instill an Arsenicum attention to detail.

     Bohjalian is a talented writer, and his novel is propelled along nicely by a carefully crafted set of literary devices, anticipatory foreshadowing, heart-rending flashbacks, and obsessive internal monologues. Anyone who picks up one of his novels must discover the inevitable conclusion. The writing style is compelling, and the story demands resolution. What Bohjalian does best, and what will keep readers returning to his books, is to capture the subtleties of human interaction, tapping the emotional tone of delicate situations, transforming the slight gestures of personal moments into enduring memories, a widowed father reading to his young daughter, a family friend visiting the wife of a man about to die. Personal fates take on a higher significance for us in his books, but isn't this always the good writer's great accomplishment?

About the author:

Randall Neustaedter has practiced homeopathy in the San Francisco Bay Area for 25 years.

Review by Donna Powers

A good friend of mine who is in the book business gave me an advance copy of The Law of Similars to read as she knows that I am studying homeopathy. This was before Christmas when I was busy with the demands of the season and I had promised myself that I would take a break from studies and anything homeopathic. The book sat on my nightstand until January 5. On that day, suffering the aches and pains of flu, I decided that rather than searching the repertory trying to find that elusive remedy for any or all of us (yes, it was a family event ... 3 out of 4 down and out for 10 days ... after a 2-week break from school), I would crawl into bed and have a look at this book. And guess what? This book is a work of fiction not a textbook, treatise or self-help book on homeopathy (although I am aware that there are many in the world who might mistake any homeopathic non-fiction as a work of fiction). 

     The Law of Similars is the story of Leland Fowler, lawyer and father of a four-year-old daughter. His wife has died two years earlier and recently he has developed a sore throat that just won't go away. After trying the conventional route without success, he turns to the small town's homeopath, Carissa Lake, for help. He falls in love with her and against her better, professional judgment, she falls in love with him. Matters become complicated when one of her asthmatic patients falls into an allergy-induced coma and because Leland is a State's Attorney, he gets professionally involved. Both Leland and Carissa are then faced with all kinds of moral, ethical, professional and personal issues. That's the storyline, but more than a review of this book, I'd like to offer my ramblings and responses. It seems to me, that with the publishing of this book, homeopathy will really be "out there" in the public mind (assuming that the book makes it in hardcover sales ... his book Midwives was quite successful).

     My first response was to have many thoughts going on at the same time, mostly questions. Was the author a homeopath? How did he hear about homeopathy? Was he writing about a homeopath that he knew? Was this based on a real situation (despite all those wonderful disclaimers in the front)? Why did he want to write about a homeopath? Are lawyers and detectives as self-conscious about reading crime/law novels as I was as a homeopath-studying-to-be reading about a fictional homeopath?

     In terms of writing and the story, it moved at a fast clip and it had all the elements necessary to entertain. I was never bored, I liked the characters, the conflicts, the narrative and the dialogue, and I finished the book. Technically, it's a well-written book. But I think I was distracted all the way through because I am or will be a homeopath. I really want to get this book into the hands of those who know little or nothing about homeopathy and have them tell me what they think about it. In some ways, I think homeopaths might be a little too close to the subject. But ... the whole thing made me think. It made me think about what my office will look like (Carissa's is quite distinct), how I will interact with patients, the language I will use with patients, my legal obligations with patients, how will I keep records of visits, phone calls and advice, how I will balance the personal and professional, and how I will handle the very serious life/death situations. It also made me think about the public image of homeopathy ... how is it perceived as a profession? How do I perceive it? 

     The author wrote the homeopath as a woman and although there are probably more women practicing than men, I wondered, how would the story have been told had the homeopath been a man and the lawyer a woman? How would that small change affect the perception of homeopaths and homeopathy? Or would it? What do you think? 

     Being a person who loves pithy quotes smattered throughout books, I did enjoy that about this novel. Each chapter is prefaced with a quote from the Organon or from the Chronic Diseases and each section has a drawing of constellations. The theme of stars and constellations runs throughout. 

     Then, from the sublime to the ridiculous, I started casting the characters in a movie version of the book! It has the kind of story line that could easily lend itself to a big screen or television movie. Say ... how about that for a big fundraiser? Buy the movie rights! Somebody ... call the author ... quick! And while you have him on the line, tell him I'd love to interview him. I'm dying to ask him, "Tell me, why a novel about homeopathy?"

Review by Linda Jarosiewicz

Note: The following review reveals many details of the novel's story line. If you plan to read the book and want to be surprised, you may wish to read this review afterwards.

(Rubrics in parentheses throughout this review were selected from the Complete Repertory by Roger van Zandvoort)

Chris Bohjalian is a good storyteller, and The Law of Similars is a good story. Although the book is not really about homeopathy, homeopathy is the background on which Mr. Bohjalian paints his tale. This story is really about the fragility of human life and human relationships; about seeing what we need to see, and not what is really there; about doing what we need to do, and not what we should do. 

     Told mainly in flashbacks, with the narrative jumping backwards and forwards through time, the account seems more complex than it really is. There are four main characters in the story: Leland Fowler, a prosecutor working out of the State Attorney's office; Carissa Lake, a licensed psychologist who is now practicing homeopathy; Richard Emmons, one of Carissa's patients; and Jennifer Emmons, his wife. 

     Leland is a walking case study in Arsenicum. One gets the feeling that he emerged whole from a Materia Medica. When the story opens, he is feeling guilty (Mind, anxiety, conscience, of) about his sleeping arrangements. For almost two years since his wife's death, he has been letting his daughter sleep with him. Although the arrangement was originally to comfort a two-year-old child who was suddenly without her mother, we get the impression that it continued because Leland didn't like being alone (Mind, company, desire for). Still, when she turns four, he decides it is time for Abby to go back to her own room. That's when he gets "the cold" (Mind, ailments from being alone; ailments from grief). Runny nose, watery eyes, sore throat—the cold that won't go away despite over-the-counter medicines and lifestyle changes (Mind, anxiety, health; despair, recovery; Generalities, abuse of medicaments). The cold that wakes him up at three in the morning (Generalities, agg. 3 a.m.).

    The quest for health leads Leland to the local health food store where a young woman behind the counter suggests he go see her aunt, Carissa, who is a homeopath. Carissa already has a bit of a reputation in this sleepy Vermont town because of her office walls which are painted with a mural depicting the Cimeti?re du P?re Lachaise, Samuel Hahnemann's final resting place. Her idea was to offer a haven from the everyday world where people could open their minds to the wonders of homeopathy; apparently, more than one sufferer finds sitting in a cemetery a little disconcerting even if it is just painted on the walls. 

     Leland, however, is not in the least disconcerted. The account of his consultation with Carissa is nicely done; it is especially interesting to see the interview from the patient's perspective. Leland is so impressed with his new homeopath that he asks her out on a date. She, of course, refuses because it wouldn't be ethical. 

     Carissa doesn't give Leland his remedy right away, preferring to mull things over a bit first. She gives him a book explaining the basics of her healing art—good homeopathic practice so far. But then Bohjalian makes the choice of a homeopathic remedy seem much easier than it really is by having Leland skim the book Carissa gave him, and figure out his own remedy. He decides that she is going to give him Arsenicum, and the thought terrifies him (Mind, fear, poisoned, being). 

     A couple of days later—it seems to take the homeopath longer to decide on the remedy than it does the patient—Leland receives his remedy. As he sucks on the sugar pills, he experiences what can only be described as a "high." He is at once transformed—a new man. And yes, she gave him Arsenicum.

     Leland is hooked, not only on homeopathy, but on his homeopath. He showers her with gifts—albeit of the bargain basement, homegrown variety—and invitations. After a week or so, Carissa relents and agrees to go out with him, after, of course, telling him that he will have to see a new homeopath and giving him a referral. On their second date, on Christmas Eve, Carissa comes to Leland's house carrying a gift basket. One thing leads to another and they end up making love under the Christmas tree. Leland recounts this event in excruciating detail (Mind, conscientious about trifles).

     Alternating with Leland and Carissa's story, is the more somber story of Richard and Jennifer Emmons. Richard is a successful businessman who suffers from asthma accompanied by disfiguring eczema, especially on his hands. He is desperate to get off the medication he is forced to take to keep his disease under control. Much to his wife's concern, he decides to seek homeopathic treatment from Carissa. Most of the flashbacks deal with Richard's story, so it is more than a little confusing. Actually, this is an effective device because the only person who really knows what has happened is Richard himself, and he is in a coma by the time Leland learns about him. 

     What has happened to Richard? It's hard to tell. Apparently he went off his meds because Carissa had told him they were antidoting his remedy. Then, when he had trouble breathing, he ate a cashew to which he was severely allergic, because of a flip remark Carissa had made in the health food store about like curing like. He goes into anaphylactic shock, and ends up in a coma from which he will not emerge. Rightly or wrongly, his wife blames Carissa and wants to see her punished. Leland is horrified at the thought that his lady love might suffer and does all sorts of unethical things to keep her out of prison, including helping her rewrite her case notes to prove her innocence. And this is where the homeopathy gets a little muddy.

     Is Carissa Lake a bad homeopath, or is she the victim of an author who did not thoroughly grasp the subject? Bohjalian understands the law of similars and explains it well. He does a good job on the history of homeopathy. But his understanding of the subject seems superficial—or is it Carissa's understanding that is superficial? He seems to know nothing about the totality of symptoms—Carissa gave Richard Rhus tox for his skin, because she felt that was what was really bothering him; or about Hering's Law of Cure—skin got better, breathing worse. Did she really tell him to eat a cashew, or was it a joke? And why confuse the ethical questions with this bit of extraneous nonsense? The story would have been stronger without it. What might have been a great novel about the ethical issues of alternative medicine simply becomes the tale of a sorry man risking all for a woman with whom he has slept. 

     To cope with the stress of what he has done, Leland helps himself to the vial of Arsenicum he found in Carissa's office and, feeling that if a little is good, more is better, proceeds to take it on an alarmingly regular basis. He goes through a very uncomfortable few days as he proves the remedy. Although anyone who knows homeopathy will immediately clue in to what is happening, Bohjalian never really explains the process so anyone else can understand.

     And yet, having said all that, I enjoyed the book. Probably, only a homeopath would find fault with it on this level. Halfway through, I forgot I was reading it critically and just read it for the story—not to mention that it is nice to see homeopathy treated seriously in a mainstream novel. On the plus side, the author presents homeopathy in a positive light, even giving the impression that Leland was a convert despite his initial problems. Each chapter begins with either an appropriate excerpt from the Organon or a bit of materia medica. He intersperses bits of homeopathic philosophy and history between the acts of the story in a way that makes it painless for the reader to learn. And while Carissa does not seem terribly competent—and maybe even a bit unethical—she is caring and tries to make amends for her sins, real or imagined.