Review - By Blood A Novel by Ellen Ullman Blackstone Audio, 2012 Review by Christian Perring Apr 27th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 17)
A professor writes about an episode in his past. During this time, he sat in an office in San Francisco in the 1970s. It turns out he has been suspended from his university, awaiting the verdict about some incident between him and a student. One day, he starts overhearing a psychotherapy between a therapist and a patient. The patient turns out to be a lesbian with a difficult relationship with her mother and also problems in her relationship with her lover. The professor has himself gone through many therapists, and he is often judgmental about this therapist who he hears through his office wall, but at other points he realizes that listening to the patient's therapy has helped him more than his own therapies ever did. He becomes completely engrossed in the case of the patient, to the extent that he interferes in her life, albeit secretly. The whole novel is the story of his listening to this therapy over a considerable period of time.
There are many distinctive features of the book. It is about the patient's discovery of her own family history, which rests on the question whether she is Catholic or Jewish. She is adopted, and she does not know who her birth mother was. She eventually discovers the truth, and meets members of her original family. It means that she learns much about Germany during the 1930s. She reports her conversations with family members to her therapist, and the professor reconstructs them. We do not have much of a literal report of the patient's therapy, but instead he writes as if we are hearing her original conversations. This is one of the most artificial aspects of a novel whose whole plot is so implausible that it feels like it is not even attempting to be realistic. The telling of the story is tortuous in ways that bring to mind the work of Kafka, and one wonders whether there is some point being made by making it like that. The therapy itself is so unrealistic and bizarre that one can only imagine that the book is not aiming at realism at all, but is giving itself over to a certain set of ideas and following them no matter what.
If the aim of the book were simply to tell a story about the effects of anti-Semitism in 1930s Germany and how they can be traced to 1970s California, there would be far more straightforward ways to do that. The massively bracketed plotline, with quotes within quotes within quotes within quotes, achieves an oppressive quality that is barely rescued by creating a mystery that is eventually solved -- the origins of the patient. It is interesting and it does hold one's attention at the same time as trying one's patience. Maybe its very artificiality is what makes it memorable. Still, it is not a book that one can look upon with great fondness.
The unabridged audiobook is read by Malcolm Hillgartner with an obsessive quality appropriate to the narrator, and he gives a strong performance. It's not easy portraying such a tiresome and unlikeable character telling a long story, but he does carry it off.
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