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Snap Judgments: Book

Ellen Ullman: By Blood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

In programmer-novelist Ellen Ullman’s dense, digressive novel of 1970s San Francisco, a lonely, neurotic, unnamed professor, on leave while under investigation for an unspecified sexual scandal, moves into a downtown office to nurse his wounds. Next door, a German-born psychologist treats a young lesbian (also unnamed) who’s unhappy in love but unhappier still with her mysterious origins: She’s adopted and doesn’t know who her birth parents are. The professor overhears his neighbor’s conversations with her and soon fixates on her struggle to the point of tracking down her birth mother—a journey that takes him deep into Holocaust territory. The story is packed with compelling topics, such as adoption practices in Europe after World War II, desperate survival schemes in and out of concentration camps, and the plight of troubled Holocaust survivors living out their remaining days in Israel, but Ullman’s efforts to fuse them into a coherent narrative don’t quite work. Her energy never flags as she explores the looming riddle of identity and what it means to belong—asking passionately, “Where exactly are we wanted?”—but the result feels lumpy and implausible. B

City Lights hosts a launch party and reception for By Blood with author Ellen Ullman at Tosca on Tuesday, March 6 at 7 p.m. 242 Columbus Avenue, (415) 986-9651. Read more here.