39 of 42 people found the following review helpful
With a seductive, unbridled imagination, Ellen Ullman has written an unnerving, intriguing novel that explores a most unusual kind of a psychological triangle involving the novel's narrator-a disgraced university professor with an obsessive compulsive disorder on leave from academia in San Francisco; a German-born psychotherapist with personal issues regarding her German parentage and a counter transference problem with one of her patients; and the patient herself, a smart and successful, 30 year old San Francisco economist, also a lesbian, trying to come to terms with the fact that she was an adopted child.
By Blood: A Novel is a page-turning Hitchcockian type of suspense with enthralling prose that for the most part captivates and commands. I must admit that I stalled in the narrative after the first 100 pages or so. For me the pacing was uneven and often overwrought; or the believability of the plotting could not be sustained with the overabundance of contrivances; or the characters would stiffen or become plasticine and their dialogue unctuous. Yet in spite of these fault lines, I still remained a captivated reader. Eventually the fault lines did disappear and were forgiven and forgotten. By section three I was completely absorbed in this heartbreaking and profound story, a story Ellen Ullman has conjured over the very ruins of history.
The setting is San Francisco during the 1970s. The narrating professor takes an office in an old building in downtown San Francisco, a place where he hopes to work without distraction, preparing a series of lectures on classical Greek literature which he hopes will enable him to return to academia. Unfortunately, because of a thin, common door shared with the next office, the professor finds his concentration is disrupted by the voices on the other side of the door. The office belongs to Dr. Schussler and the professor is able to hear every word of the therapeutic session the doctor is conducting with her patient, the economist.
The eavesdropping professor becomes fascinated with the unnamed patient and the novel opens with the following statement...
"I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory for me. At the end of it, I was a changed man. I am indebted to her; it was she who changed me, although I never learned her name."
The professor's curiosity about his "patient" becomes an obsession and he a compulsive voyeur. It is from here that this haunting story is launched to explode over the concept of identity-of who we are, of where we come from, of what we inherit by birth, and for the unnamed patient- "what it means to say, I`m a Jew."
"Everyone has his own genetic fate written inside him-his own complement of mental predispositions, weaker organs waiting to fail, more or less likely routes upon which he will encounter the face of death. But what good it it to know? Knowledge is not relief..."
By Blood: A Novel is compulsive, intimate and revelatory. It is not a perfect novel but it is a good novel that will keep you turning the pages. Sometimes erotic, sometimes magnetic, sometimes bold, and sometimes poignant, this is an unforgettable story that will possess your imagination, rouse your emotions, and startle you with an exciting ending.
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
First let me say I liked the story line a great deal due to its originality and somewhat offbeat nature. However, what I found to be somewhat off-putting was the excessive descriptive verbiage and the fact that it took about the first thirty pages to even ascertain what the story might be about.
The plot took place slowly throughout and it had a very nice unique twist at the end. The story takes place in San Francisco of the mid 1970s but the back story happens in WWII Germany.
A rather deep suspension of disbelief is necessary to accept the story-teller in his roll as a college professor under suspension w/o pay for his "possible" role in sex with a male student. Having taught in college myself, I am somewhat at a loss as to how this man supports himself on the salary of an unemployed college professor, who appeared to have no other job, at least as I understood it and no other family member providing him with financial support. At the same time he seems to rent an office in the same building as a psychoanalyst and then proceeds to act as an aural voyeur with her one patient as the focus of his interest. There are other aspects to his and the patient's life that are simply not explained to any degree of satisfaction. She is a quantitative analyst but also seems unbounded by any regular job hours.
But the big problem as I saw it was the descriptive language used throughout the book. It sounded very pedantic and extremely stilted in a manner that someone of a foreign background might think upper class, or at least well educated Americans might speak but never would, at least not any that I ever met. Let me give a few examples:
1. "A fire truck wailed below then dopplered off." - I mean, "dopplered off"???
2. "My dear patient drove home through the foggy lanes, again going around and around her lost circuit." - Her lost circuit???
3. "I have said, any man in my position would have responded similarly - when the tumescence proceeded briskly, I became quite alarmed." - Yeah, I'd be alarmed too if I heard some guy refer to his tumescence!
4. "...she seemed to have unlearned the worst aspects of her native speech, for she softened the jaw-breaking growl that passed for an R in that part of the world, and had widened the mashed dipthonged A (a horrid sound, as if you pinched your nose while saying ae-yeah) into an airy open monosyllabic ah." Does anyone get what she just said, and I did study German although am certainly not fluent in it.
Although I liked the shortness of all the chapters, many being only a page long, I hated the long confusing sentences, as given in example 4 above and the use of words commonly found in one form turned into another. i.e. DOPPLERED and the normal use of the word dipthong as a noun turned into DIPTHONGED. The sentence structure sounds all wrong and convoluted, taking away from the story line which I want to say again was interesting, inspiring, and proceeded with a fairly steady if slow cadence throughout.
IMHO the story line deserves 4 stars, but the grammar gets 2 stars which is why I could only award it three stars.
If you can get over the suspension of disbelief about the protagonist, who commonly referred to the object of his voyeurism as "My dear patient" to the point of nausea, and the grammar issues then the story is quite enjoyable and intriguing. This is a book for serious readers and not one to take on a winter cruise or to read on a sunny beach!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2012
Sometimes you read a book that redefines reading for you, that makes you remember why literature is such a powerful force. Yeah, this was that book.
The main character. The book is set in San Fransisco in the 70s, at the height of the Zodiac killer's reign. Amidst the sexual revolution and serial killer terror is our main character; someone who several times during the course of novel you are led to question if HE could be the famed killer. His past is shrouded in mystery, his mental state uncertain. Everything about him screams killer, from his "crows" that talk him into stalking people or his tendency to black out.
But even with that, I couldn't help but be intrigued by him.
Especially when he inserts himself into the secondary (who is really more of the main character)'s story. An un-named, adopted, lesbian who works in finances who is struggling with her identity as an adopted child is having a session with her therapist when our main character becomes intrigued by the idea of her. Who is she? How can he help her discover who she is? Can she help him heal himself?
The girl's search for her mother leads the reader everywhere from WWII torn Germany to Tel Aviv, back across the country to the East Coast of the US. With the help of her mysterious pseudo-stalker, the woman discovers the horrors in her past that force her to question whether she was better off in ignorance.
Perhaps my favorite part is the ending; blunt, realistic, climactic and yet leaves you feeling cheated. Instead of the author giving you a play-by-play of what comes after the book has ended, the reader is forced to think for themselves and figure out how the stories end. There's nothing I love more than an author giving agency to their readers, and Ullman does this at EVERY turn of the novel.
At times erotic, at times nauseating, and at times horribly sad, it's a story about the definition of family and the trauma of war all wrapped up in the question of identity. Brilliant is probably the closest word I have.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
This novel is definitely a rare and welcome addition to the literary world. Today most novels are pop fiction and generically just fill a genre. With BY BLOOD we get a novel by author Ellen Ullman who has a true gift with the written word and a definite purpose in her writing. She writes with lyrical prose that bring a true beauty and intensity to the English language. She sets her novel in San Francisco during the 70s. It was a time of free love but the city and country were actually going thru a very difficult period. Ullman sets up a very original basic premise and introduces characters who are superbly developed and all serving a true purpose in this novel. BY BLOOD is a joy to read and pulls the reader in. You must be prepared to think. This novel is written with intelligence and a true raw intention by the author. Ullman takes the reader on a journey with twists and turns never ending. It is emotional, disturbing and heart wrenching. It is so refreshing to have characters who are real and possess true depth and character. This novel crosses over many different themes and you will not be the same when done reading it. The journey of all the characters come together for a true purpose that Ellen Ullman masterfully guides the reader thru.
Ullman is a writer of exsquisite talent. She writes with an intensity, passion and realism not often found today. I loved this novel and it left me with much food for thought as any well written novel should. I can't wait to see what she comes up with next in her next book. Highly recommended.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
over twenty years ago woody allen wrote a film called Another Woman about a professor who rents an office so she can get some work done. she discoves though that she can hear the psychiatric sessions between a psychiatrist and a pregnant Mia Farrow who is the patient. rather than doing her work, she gets completely engrossed in mia farrow's life and problems. this book opens with a professor hiring an office to get his work done. he overhears a patient and psychiatrist. the patient is a woman who is a lesbian but is resentful of the militant women's movement going on as she is in 1974 san francisco. of even bigger concern to her though is her birth mother. she is adopted. The eavesdropping professor gets involved in her life and the solving of the birth mother problem. this is fairly well written and i'd say it was a heck of an idea if i hadn't seen and read it in allen's work. it is hard for me to get excited about such a derivative idea.
Visit my blog with link given on my profile page here or use this phonetically given URL (livingasseniors dot blogspot dot com). Friday's entry will always be weekend entertainment recs from my 5 star Amazon reviews in film, tv, books and music. These are very heavy on buried treasures and hidden gems. My blogspot is published on Monday, Wednesday & Friday.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Mrs. Ullman's "By Blood" is a bit of a slow starter in my opinion, and I confess that I came close to quitting this book. However I stuck to my 100pg rule and before long it got going and I was completely absorbed. The first-person narrator is a male professor who is under investigation at his university circa 1970s. He rents an office for the purpose of writing with the premise that he will function better by leaving his home for a certain number of hours (I can relate to that). The office turns out to be next door to a psychiatrist's practice. The walls are thin, so as most Drs do a white noise machine is used for privacy. However there is one patient who cannot stand the sound of said white noise machine, so they decide to turn it off during her sessions. The narrator cannot help but eavesdropping on the sessions and discovers that the patient was given up for adoption and is trying to find her biological mother, this biological mother happens to be a Jewish concentration camp survivor who surrendered her infant. The professor makes it his business to look into the patients search for her past while still remaining anonymous. The narrative device that Ullman uses here works fantastically, adding the perfect mix of tension and momentum to the story and carefully pacing what the characters and the reader get to learn as the novel progresses. Once the search process gets going, the book really picks up. Suffice to say that there are numerous twists and turns and some completely unexpected events that come from the professor's singular decision. Fans of literary fiction will hopefully enjoy this work as much as I did. Highly recommended.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
The first half of this book took a LONG time to get through. The nameless narrator was too much of a mystery to me - the intrigue about who this was and why he was telling the story soon faded. My interest piqued a bit once we met the also nameless "patient" who becomes one of the objects of his obsession...but until the story of her heritage begins to unfold, there was very little in "By Blood" to hold my interest. There was so little life in the narrator prior to his discovery of "the patient" that I began to doubt his existence. "My presence in the hallway, my body before the door so close to hers, would force upon her the very fact of my existence, my face and physique giving visual form to any sound she might hear. Yet she must not imagine a body in Room 807; she must believe the room holds nothing but air."
And THEN (while on a long plane ride - perfect timing) - I was all in. The story of the patient's mother(s) and her conception was fascinating. This young woman, frustrated with her inability to connect with the mother she's always known, reaches out to the birth mother she never knew. And her frustration only increases. "I knew she was lying, that I did have another name, one she gave me, or intended to, a name she carried around in her mind all these years - or one she wanted to forget. In any case, I was angry. I felt my names belonged to me, and that I should have them, know them. I couldn't stand being a person dealt out in little pieces, different people owning parts of me, different ideas of me." "I wanted to gather up all the pieces and own myself."
This story deals with characters that are missing pieces of themselves. Pieces of their history, pieces of their heritage, pieces of their soul - taken from them through monstrous acts of others...and pieces of their sanity as evidenced by the narrator. (I still haven't decided if I believe that he existed at all, but he certainly did not exist in the fashion he believed himself to. Which probably doesn't make any sense...but so goes this story.)
This story also deals with love. Messy, frustrating, flawed and incredibly strong human love. Most powerfully, it reminds the reader of the horrors that humans can inflict on one another - as evidenced by the Holocaust.
"You will see this in all the stories of us survivors: improbable moments like the one I just described, events that turn on luck, on nonsensical holes in the fabric of logic, tears in reality itself. Otherwise if we had followed the inevitability of normal events, one thing expected to follow another, the way the world works most of the time, we would be dead. There would not be that moment when the guard hesitates. The disgusting tenderness the tormentor feels for the object of his evil deeds - it could not exist."
There are few names in this story. Some omitted, some only temporary. Maybe that is because these stories represent so many names, so many lives. It becomes increasingly important that we remember them not only as individual lives, but as a group. A group of fellow human beings that experienced what no person should, and certainly no person should experience again. The impact of their individual lives matters, as does the impact of their lives as a group, and what that scope of loss of life means.
"The dead were buried in mass graves - tossed in with bulldozers - just as everyone has seen in the magazine pictures. But if you have never seen anything like it before, you can search the depth and breadth of all you have ever learned about language, and you will not find a word or a figure of speech, or a form of rhetoric, to help you pronounce in your own mind what you are seeing."
This is a vague review, I know. But this book is unlike any I have read before. The reader knows so little of what might be true, what might be lies. What (or who) might exist and what might be delusion. Yet at the heart of "By Blood" there beats a heart of pain and loss...and a very human desire to be loved.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 28, 2013
gratuitous sex scene between two women that had nothing to do with the plot except sell the book. The protagonist was not fully developed -= she wrote in a way that seemed urgent - but nothing was ever resolved - the style and premise had potential - but the characters were too phony. We read it in book club and we all agreed - SKIP THIS BOOK
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
One aspect that makes Judaism different from many other faiths is the idea that it is more than a religion; it is something of an ethnic group. Therefore, it is possible to be Jewish in identity even if none of the religious aspects are adhered to, even as say, a Serbian would still be considered a Serbian even if he were adopted by a non-Serbian family. Conversely, one is not really born a Christian but becomes one through certain acts (and similarly can stop being a Christian by renouncing and/or not practicing these acts). It's a hazy and debatable issue and one that is the crux of Ellen Ullman's novel, By Blood.
The nameless protagonist of By Blood is a 30-year-old woman (roughly, as the book takes place over a couple years) who works in finance in mid-1970s San Francisco. She is a lesbian, which is a problem for her rather conservative mother. Actually, she is the adoptive mother, which is one of the issues in the protagonist's life (father figures are almost completely absent in this book).
There is an emptiness in her life, one that she feels may be filled by learning about her biological mother. Trying to cope with this, she sees a psychologist. Unbeknownst to patient and therapist, their sessions are being overheard by the narrator of the story. The narrator is a middle-aged professor on leave due to some unclear (but likely sex-related) ethics violations; he is a rather disturbed individual who starts obsessing about the patient based on what he hears. He never sees her or even knows her name (a bit implausible, since I'd think the psychologist would mention it at least once in their conversations), but he is determined to help her and in a way, succeeds: he finds her biological mother.
This mother was a German Jew during the time of Hitler, with all the dangers that entailed. For the patient, this provides a problem: raised in a WASPy environment, should she actually consider herself a Jew? Much of the book deals with the patient's attempts to determine what her identity should be: how much of it is the result of the mother who gave her up and how much is due to the parents who raised her.
This book succeeds because of Ullman's strong ability to keep the reader interested. Although I would refer to it as a literary novel, Ullman also has a bit of the thriller writer in her as she creates suspense and keeps the pages turning. The suspense comes from the gradual revelations of the patient's life, not any physical threats. (Despite what I think of as a rather deceptive reference to the Zodiac Killer in the back-of-the-book synopsis, there is no real violence or threat of violence in this book). This is a well-written book that entertains even as it explores some rather complex ideas about what it is that fashions our identities.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 14, 2014
I liked Ms. Ullman's earlier novel "The Bug" a lot and was anxious to read this one. "By Blood" starts out very well - I was interested in the main male character and his immediate attraction to the psychological sessions going on next door and became invested in that story. But during major sections of the story, the lesbian patient's voice and voices from her story completely dominate the story and the secret listener disappears. The two sets of stories -- the disturbed male who eventually becomes a full-fledged stalker and the lesbian patient who eventually confronts her mother about her own personal history -- don't fit together. Separately, they might have been interesting but they don't comment on each other, nor do they advance the reader's understanding of either of the main characters. While I found much of the lesbian's family history to be fascinating as it emerges, it seemed like a red herring to the main story that was set up for the secretive listener next door, which I found more interesting. The fact that a few chapters were presented as actual tape recordings that the lesbian patient made of another person during her voyages of discovery distanced me even more from the second story. The resolution of the lesbian patient's story, which I viewed as more peripheral, was much more satisfying than the male stalker's story, which ended abruptly and less satisfyingly. I was disappointed because I wanted more story about the male listener, which was presented as the major story at the beginning of the novel, and more connection between the listener, the patient, and the psychologist as the story emerged.
(Unlike one other online reviewer, I think that this is a terrific book jacket cover that expresses the two overlapping stories and also manages to hint at the noise-machine that the psychologist uses to mask her patients' sessions.)