Excerpted from The Law of Similars by Chris Bohjalian. Copyright © 2000 by Chris Bohjalian. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Chris Bohjalian on The Law of Similars:
Often it's the little things that will trigger a novel: Meeting a midwife at a dinner party. Seeing a photograph of an elderly dowser--or water witch--in a newspaper. Having a cold.
The fact is, The Law of Similars was inspired by a cold.
It was one of those colds that lingered--not unlike the cold that would eventually beleaguer Leland Fowler, the novel's narrator. My daughter was in a new day care, which meant I was making contact with every single cold germ medical science has catalogued. Nothing was able to keep me cold-free for more than a day or two, not even that workhorse of over-the-counter New Age wonder drugs, Echinacea. And so I finally decided to visit a homeopath. I wasn't exactly sure what homeopathy was, but the remedies sounded exotic: tarantula and arsenic and gold. Belladona. Pulsatella. The black widow spider.
Moreover, there is actually a homeopath in the little village in which I live. (My corner of rural Vermont, apparently, is a small mecca of sorts for holistic healing. We have here a homeopath, a naturopath, a pair of Midwives, and two meditation centers--including one of some international renown.)
I don't think I imagined there was a novel in homeopathy, however, until I met the homeopath and she explained to me the protocols of healing. There was a poetry to the language that a patient doesn't hear when visiting a conventional doctor: "Herring's Law of Cure," "Succussing the Remedy." And, of course, the foundation for treatment, "The Law of Similars." In essence, I like the words.
On my second visit, I was given my remedy, and I was surprised to discover it worked. Or, perhaps, the homeopath got lucky and the timing was right and the cold went away on its own. I'll never know. Either way, the cold indeed disappeared, and it didn't come back for almost a year.
Does this mean I'm a convert to homeopathy, a passionate, proselytizing disciple? Not completely. I still see a conventional physician and I still take prescription medicines. I am still more likely to take an Advil for a headache than Ignatia (the St. Ignatius bean) or Aconite (wolfsbane).
But I am convinced that the bridge between body and mind is sturdier than I'd once believed. That link may be invisible, but it is profound. I wasn't sure if there was any real magic in those tiny homeopathic pills that I had swallowed, but there was certainly something alluring and seductive in the art itself.
Make no mistake, however, The Law of Similars is not a novel about homeopathy. It is simply a novel in which homeopathy--or, actually, the miracles in all medicine that seem to be always just beyond our reach--plays a role.
And since my cold was caught up in my mind with the notion that my daughter was in a new day care, I think it was probably inevitable that the novel's narrator would be a father. . . and he would have a daughter. . . and that little girl would be roughly my own daughter's age.
Before I knew it, I had Leland Fowler and his little girl, Abby, and the germ of the story that would grow into a book.
1) Carissa Lake is a psychologist as well as a homeopath. In what ways do these two disciplines reinforce each other in her treatment of patients? What effect do her questions about his personal life have on Leland? Does the success of Leland's cure depend on his willingness to trust Carissa?
2) How does Richard Emmons's motivation for trying homeopathy differ from Leland's? Do you think that his fear of the long-term effects of conventional medicine is realistic and that Jennifer too willingly accepts the authority of the medical establishment?
3) Within a week of taking Carissa's medication, Richard's skin clears up and the aches in his joints diminish. In light of this, do you think his decision to give up the inhaler and pills he took for his asthma was reasonable? Do his actions justify Jennifer's opposition to homeopathy or do they indicate a flaw within Richard himself? Should Carissa have recognized that Richard's demands for more medication were a prelude to his decision to take matters into his own hands?
4) The two events at the heart of The Law of Similars occur almost simultaneously on Christmas Eve: Leland and Carissa make love for the first time and Richard attempts to medicate himself by eating cashews. What do these events reflect about the character of each man? Are there similarities between the risks they both take in hopes of creating a better future for themselves?
5) When Leland realizes that Carissa might be charged with a criminal offense because of Jennifer's accusations, why doesn't he leave Carissa's house immediately? Is it wrong for him to put his feelings for Carissa above what he knows he should do as a lawyer? Discuss the distinction he makes between the "ethical" thing to do and the "moral" thing to do. [p. 135]
6) Carissa readily admits that she made a joke about eating cashews to Richard in the health food store. Do you think "Richard Emmons was an idiot who mistook an offhand remark...for medical advice"? [p. 139] Or did Carissa fail to live up to an essential professional obligation to answer Richard's questions responsibly even in a light-hearted conversation?
7) At what point does Leland cross the line between his commitment to upholding the law and his commitment to Carissa? Should he have reported his involvement with Carissa to his boss and the state trooper immediately, even though no criminal charges were pending? Should he have refused to interview Jennifer Emmons?
8) Carissa accuses Leland of treating her like a criminal when he first questions her about her conversation with Richard, and Leland makes the same accusation when his boss presses him for the details about his relationship with Carissa. How do these two occasions differ from each other, and what do they reveal about Carissa's and Leland's understanding of the situation and its likely consequences?
9) Why does Carissa agree to doctor her notes on treating Richard? Do you think her deference to Leland is excessive? Does his insistence that she is only protecting herself from a possible miscarriage of justice exonerate her for participating in what she correctly believes is an illegal act? Do you think her ultimate decision to leave the United States was the only one she could have made in order to live as she wanted to?
10) Each chapter is introduced with a quotation from the works of Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy. How do they add to your understanding of the book? Discuss their function as a backdrop--or gloss--for the actual events of the plot.
11) What is the significance of Leland's increasing dependence on the arsenic pills he takes from Carissa's office? How do his reactions over the course of the novel--from his initial exhilaration to the unpleasant physical symptoms and fears he suffers at the end--relate to the law of similars that informs homeopathy?
12) When Midwives was first published, it led to an often heated debate about the literal and metaphoric place of birth in our culture. Do you think The Law of Similars will stimulate an equally earnest discussion about the role alternative medicine should play in health care?
13) Chris Bohjalian has said that The Law of Similars is about forgiveness. How successful are the three main characters--Leland, Carissa, and Jennifer--at forgiving themselves and each other?