O! what Man will do fore a Rime!

Self-proclaimed bibliophile, culture nut and nerdfighter. English lit. and linguistics geek. Future career in publishing.


By Blood by Ellen Ullman

By Blood - Ellen Ullman

And immediately a chasm opened between the patient's last words and those still to come.

Was the woman named Michal Gerson truly her mother? What was my evidence? Initials. A date. Historical patterns. Almost nothing.

The laughing voice of Mrs. Knobloch mocked me: Who am I to tell you what to believe?


- By Blood

chapter 67 (part 2)



Warning: There be spoilers below, yargh.


By Blood is about a professor who moves to San Francisco during the 1970s because he did something bad at the university where he worked (but we don't actually figure out what) and so is put on leave. He rents an office in a building where the walls are paper thin (like, rice paper thin) and overhears the therapy sessions of a young, adopted lesbian next door. So, like the creep he is, he eavesdrops and becomes obsessed with her quest to find her birth mother.


Sounds pretty great, right? Wrong.


By Blood was obscenely boring. It should be illegal to have a book this boring. That's a bit of lie; it's only the first two parts of the book that are practically insufferable to sit through. That's why it took me almost six months to finish. The story does pick up once we get to the third part, so it was a bit of a relief. Overall, it was a very dry and tedious read.


As for characters, our protagonist is beyond creepy and is bordering on the stalker edge. Okay, he doesn't actually know what the patient looks like, but he knows where she lives because of snooping and he's obsessed with hearing her confidential sessions with the therapist. He constantly calls her "[his] dear patient" in a not altogether paternalistic way. It's a bit frightening. He is also very judgemental of the therapist because of her German-ness and because of his hatred of therapists -- yet, he still listens in.


In fact, the protagonist is less of a real character and more of a narrative frame. Ullman uses the professor as the vehicle through which we hear of the patient's story. Unfortunately, this narrative frame doesn't work: there is too much focus on the patient's story to actually make the professor a useful narrative device; instead he just gets in the way, especially when interjecting the story with pointless and disruptive asides. They don't make the story flow better and they certainly aren't interesting.


The more clever narrative frame that Ullman uses is in the third part, when we have the main story told through a tape recording. Now that is much more interesting and unique, and it gives the story a bit of tension and intrigue.


Back to the professor, besides being a very flat character, he's also a character where you wish you weren't in his head. He's blatantly creepy in his thoughts, is obsessive in an I-will-kill-you-so-that-no-one-else-can-have-you kind of way and loves to regale us with how "titillating" something was or how hearing about the patient's lesbian encounter made him get an uncomfortable boner at his desk. I never want to hear the word "titillating" again; it has been tainted.


The other characters we get are the patient and the therapist, with a bit of adoptive parents and birth mother thrown in as anecdotal evidence. The patient was almost a cardboard cut-out herself despite Ullman trying to make her unique by being a lesbian. In the end, the patient's lesbianism seemed to only be there to catch the professor's attention (because he wouldn't listen in to just any non-LGBTQ patient, now would he) and so that Ullman could write a lesbian porn scene (which we then had to suffer through the professor's "Oh, yeah, tell me more, baby" crotch-grind reaction). True, her lesbianism was also there so that the patient and her adoptive mother could have a contentious relationship, but it really didn't seem properly thought out or integrated with purpose.


The therapist is definitely a cardboard cut-out: she's German and her father was a Nazi, which she feels guilt over even though she was in America and had nothing to do with it. So, just like every other German who had a family member in the Nazi party after the war ended.


The actual mystery and plot did turn out to be fairly interesting once we get to part three and find the birth mother, although I would argue that the mystery is not very mysterious. Essentially, this is no Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes mystery. Having to read about the Jewish people surviving in Europe during the Nazi regime is always interesting, no matter who writes it, really.


However, there are some issues that I have with a bit that was tacked on to the end: Lebensborn. World War II history buffs and a lot of other people know what Lebensborn is, but it only gets like five pages of coverage in the book even though it was a large plot piece for the birth mother. It felt like Ullman just discovered it during her final draft and thought it was neat bit of history, so she threw it on the end there. It didn't work, felt out of place in its placement and felt like an afterthought. If this secret Nazi project was so important to the patient's birth history, what is the point of adding it on at the very end? It just didn't work for me.


I do think Ullman can write some nice prose at times, and when she's having the birth mother recount her experiences it's a joy to read. Sadly, Ullman can also be very dry with her prose, so I guess it balances out.


Not the first person to tackle the Holocaust and Jewish people in Europe during the Nazi regime, and I don't think she tackled it as well as others have. By Blood, though, is still a fairly enjoyable read once you suffer through the first two parts and eventually stop weeping about the professor's incessant nattering and creepiness.

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