Tracing an Adoptee's Novel Past

WASP-y Upbringing Masks Stuff of Nazi-Era Thriller

By Shoshana Olidort

Published March 29, 2012, issue of April 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

By Blood
By Ellen Ullman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 387 pages, $27

marion ettlinger

“I am not adopted; I have mysterious origins.” It’s a line Ellen Ullman says she has repeated to herself many times, as an adopted person, and one she likes so much that she put it in the mouth of the central character in her latest novel, “By Blood.”

Set in a therapist’s office in 1970s San Francisco, “By Blood” traces the mysterious origins of its nameless heroine, an adoptee who is initially reluctant to explore the true story of her birth. Egged on by her therapist as well as by her own search for self — complicated by her lesbian identity and the fact that her WASPy adoptive parents won’t entertain mention of the subject — the character soon begins the difficult process of piecing together her biological history. What she uncovers is the stuff of thrillers: the Holocaust, displaced persons camps and the German Lebensborn program. Coincidentally, the therapist is the daughter of a prominent Nazi and thus must wrestle with issues of countertransference; while counseling the patient she is forced to confront her own troublesome biological past.

As if there weren’t enough layers of intrigue in this novel, the story is related by an unlikely — and not very likeable — narrator. He’s an academic (also unnamed), on leave from his university pending an investigation by the ethics committee, who happens to be renting the office next door. (The nature of his offense is not divulged, but the reader can fairly easily surmise what that might be.) The professor initially overhears the sessions by accident but quickly finds himself captivated by the drama unfolding next door — so captivated, in fact, that he feels compelled to intervene. Unbeknownst to the patient, it’s the professor who pieces together the story of her past and ultimately leads her to the bitter survivor in Israel who is her birth mother.

There is so much that’s gripping about this novel, and one would expect this to be an easy page-turner. But plot and suspense can carry a story only so far. “By Blood” ultimately trips on itself because of the very thing that separates great fiction — which, one senses, this novel aspires to be — from fiction that is merely mediocre. At its best, prose is a form of poetry, but while the structure of the writing in this novel sometimes suggests poetry, the effect is anything but. Consider this passage:

It might have been the rain, which fell with deluvian determination; or the ceaseless wind; or the ocean’s roar outside my cottage which kept grating upon my ears like an amputating saw cutting through the bone…”

At times the novel seems almost tone deaf, as when the narrator overhears the patient talk of (lesbian) sex and finds himself experiencing a “moment of extreme titillation” whose effect is such that “the tumescence proceeded briskly.”

The writing is no less stilted when the author is trying to evoke a sense of the character’s dark, internal world, as in this passage:

The fourteen days of the Thanksgiving break stood before me, each a stake in a high fence (for so I envisioned it) over which I had to leap if I were to survive the holiday without my dear patient. Despite believing myself changed and bettered by my association with her, I knew I could not rest. Long association had taught me the wiliness of my demons, the strength of my crepuscular self, and how easily he might return to claim me.

The narrator is clearly out of his mind, and the bizarre language is merely one symptom — among others — of his severe case of OCD. (Another is his fixation on inconsequential details, evident in his lengthy descriptions of things like building facades.) But why the author would choose this narrator for her novel is altogether unclear. Not only does his language get in the way of the narrative flow, it distracts from the genuinely compelling questions that the novel is ostensibly trying to address: ones of identity, belonging and family.

Indeed, the novel’s exploration of these questions is what makes “By Blood” worthwhile. Not surprisingly, Ullman’s writing feels most real and unencumbered in the realm of these discussions, as, for example, when the narrator asks: “Does it matter? Does it matter who your father is? Your mother? Who are the exact people who dropped their blood into the container that is you?” And despite its title, the novel is equally interested in investigating our enmeshments with those who are not blood relations but who surround us, whether through choice or circumstance. The main character’s fraught relationship with her adoptive family and her ill-advised choice of romantic partner all serve to underscore the complexity of that thing we call family and the role it plays in shaping individual identity.

The novel’s overarching quest is the quest for self over a family that too often breaks us rather than making us whole. As the narrator exclaims, with surprising eloquence: “It was our task — our imperative — to think, plan, use our minds… to fight for the life of our flesh. And — to hell with our ancestors; we will show them; they do not rule us — to thrive! Or, at the very least, remain alive.”

Shoshana Olidort is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.