9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Nature versus nurture,
This review is from: By Blood: A Novel (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Program (What's this?)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.