By Blood, by Ellen Ullman is a novel that is filled with a unique perspective, as far as the narrator, who is one of the main characters, is concerned.
The narrator is a voyeur of sorts, not in the sense of being a visual “peeping Tom” type, but in the aspect of listening to a patient and her therapist from behind the wall of his office. The wall is on the other side of the shared wall in the therapist’s office. The narrator came upon the fact that he could hear their conversations when the therapist turned off the sound machine, because the patient was distracted by it.
He ends up becoming obsessed with the patient and her story. She is adopted and wants to learn about her birth parents. She feels disconnected from her adopted family, and disconnected from life, and she thinks this might help her to feel more grounded. Her desire to know the foundations of her birth is strong, and she hopes it will bring her some answers and also some resemblance to another person.
The story takes place during the 1970s, in San Francisco. It is a time of protests, government scorn, and lifestyle issues. The patient is going through an identity crisis, which is ancestral, genetically, and lifestyle based.
She is aware that she was born in Germany, and aware that the war and postwar had their affects on her being given up for adoption. She was finally able to find out where she was born and that she was given up through questioning her adoptive mother. She was brought to a Catholic organization in America, and from there given over to her grandfather, who adopted her. From there, she eventually was adopted by his own son, and we learn the reasons why.
The narrator, hearing her story becomes intensely fascinated with it, and becomes obsessed with the urge to find her birth mother. He has his own set of issues, emotional and mental ones, therefore the obsession. Some of his issues also deal with genetics.. He ends up finding out the information, piece by piece, and with each new fact, he assumes an alias and sends the information to the patient.
The story takes many twists and turns, and the mystery is solved. The patient eventually meets her birth mother and is told the facts of her birth. She also meets another family member and notices the resemblance between the two of them immediately. She feels a connection, one that she has never felt before.
The patient relays everything to the therapist through their sessions, and the narrator hears everything said in each session. Suffice it to say, that the sessions are therapeutic for the three of them: the narrator, the patient and the therapist.
I will not detail any more of the story line because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. The premise is an interesting one, and the details within the pages are extremely vivid, with strong imagery. There is much to ponder, such as nature versus nurture. Where does our foundation actually come from? Does our DNA play a significant part in our personality? Does our family environment count for the person we become?
Ullman writes with a unique voice, and one that generates masterful prose, prose often sounding a bit out of sync with today’s expressions/euphemisms and writings. For me, that was due to the time period, and the fact that it was post World War II. I didn’t find it unusual to hear some antiquated sounding prose, or prose that sounded a bit too cultured at times.
I do recommend By Blood, written by Ellen Ullman, and feel the uniqueness of the story is important in the context of Jewish identity, World War II, familial connections, nature versus nurture, and self-identity.