Book Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Book Series: N/A
Released: 2/24/2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 378 Price: $16.00 Paperback
Source: I borrowed this audiobook from my library
San Francisco in the 1970s. Free love has given way to radical feminism, psychedelic ecstasy to hard-edged gloom. The Zodiac Killer stalks the streets. A disgraced professor takes an office in a downtown tower to plot his return. But the walls are thin and he’s distracted by voices from next door—his neighbor is a psychologist, and one of her patients dislikes the hum of the white-noise machine. And so he begins to hear about the patient’s troubles with her female lover, her conflicts with her adoptive, avowedly WASP family, and her quest to track down her birth mother. The professor is not just absorbed but enraptured. And the further he is pulled into the patient’s recounting of her dramas—and the most profound questions of her own identity—the more he needs the story to move forward.
The patient’s questions about her birth family have led her to a Catholic charity that trafficked freshly baptized orphans out of Germany after World War II. But confronted with this new self— “I have no idea what it means to say ‘I’m a Jew’”—the patient finds her search stalled. Armed with the few details he’s gleaned, the professor takes up the quest and quickly finds the patient’s mother in records from a German displaced-persons camp. But he can’t let on that he’s been eavesdropping, so he mocks up a reply from an adoption agency the patient has contacted and drops it in the mail. Through the wall, he hears how his dear patient is energized by the news, and so is he. He unearths more clues and invests more and more in this secret, fraught, triangular relationship: himself, the patient, and her therapist, who is herself German. His research leads them deep into the history of displaced-persons camps, of postwar Zionism, and—most troubling of all—of the Nazi Lebensborn program.With ferocious intelligence and an enthralling, magnetic prose, Ellen Ullman weaves a dark and brilliant, intensely personal novel that feels as big and timeless as it is sharp and timely. It is an ambitious work that establishes her as a major writer.
Another full disclosure time. I picked this book because the author’s last name began with a U. I only need an author with an X to have read a book by an author of every letter in the alphabet. Feel free to give me your recommendations below. Now for the review.
I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction. I’m also not usually one to read about the Holocaust. Not that I am a denier or have anything but the deepest respect for the suffering that people went through. I simply tend to be a sensitive person and I have trouble separating myself from the fiction I read. I get emotionally distraught and it affects my mood and how I behave towards those around me. So I tend to stay away from topics that could upset me. Not the correct behavior I know but it is the approach I take in reading. Life sucks why would I want to read about more suffering. Still, I selected this book from my library because it sounded interesting and filled a reading requirement I needed.
I’m so glad I did. This book captivated me. Much like the narrator of the story, I became obsessed with the life the patient was revealing to her therapist. I guess I am a bit of a voyeur too. It was a bit of a strange read, however, and I get some of the criticism that has been posted in other reviews. I almost find myself dividing the book into two different plots. One plot thread revolved around the therapist and her patient and the other was the professor and his odd circumstance. The eavesdropping on the therapist and patient being the more compelling plot.
So let’s deal with the professor first. He needs help. Serious help. I can see why he was put on leave and was described as creepy. It is exactly what he is, creepy. Some say that his purpose was not well-defined but I disagree. I think he probably got in trouble for sexually harassing a student and the institution he works for wanted him to disappear for a few months in hopes that the drama he stirred up would be forgotten or blow over. While I did find him creepy I have to say I did not totally despise him. I almost feel bad for him as I truly feel he needs help before he hurts someone. Or it could be that I feel a tad guilty knowing I have become as obsessed with the patient’s story as he has.
Now for the therapist and her client. This was a moving story and the sole reason I’m glad I listen to this book. The patient’s story is that of a young woman in search of her identity. Like many of us, she did not feel like she fit in and desperately needed to connect with her origins to make sense of the life she now leads. What she learns is not pleasant and logically speaking should hold no reflection on who she is as a person but I can not say I would feel differently if I was in her shoes. This part of the story is so worth wading through the creepy professor parts.
My Rating: 4 Stars