By Blood

  • by Ellen Ullman
  • Narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner
  • 14 hrs and 3 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

San Francisco, 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 a downtown office 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 WASP family, and her quest to track down her birth mother.
The professor is 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.


What the Critics Say

“An irresistible Hitchcockian page-turner, brooding and solipsistic.” (Publishers Weekly)
“By Blood is a poetic and masterful story that takes some unexpected turns. The prose suggests Poe and Kafka, which heightens the mysterious tone that surrounds both the professor and the client and gives the novel a timeless feel.” (Booklist)
“A rich, taut, psychologically nuanced novel…. A first-rate literary thriller of compelling psychological and philosophical depth.” (Kirkus Reviews)


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Story Lurches to a Stop, Leaving No Skid Marks

This book has an interesting premise, a conventional story arc (displaced persons after WWII) with an unconventional viewpoint, and has all the ingredients for a page-turning identity search. I've only given it a 4, so I must have kept reading for SOME reason...

However, since most of the characters are women, perhaps it could have been more dramatic if the professor/voyeur was a male voice, since he is a male character in the story.

In my opinion, the ending or resolution was abrupt and abortive, with no acknowledgement of the academic/voyeur's ends-justify-the-means success. There was no sense of "closure" - whatever that may mean right now - in "The Patient" letting go of her birth mother and others (might be spoiling if I get more specific). The voyeuristic and scamming techniques used by the academic who listened to the entire course of the therapy could be considered inappropriate, illegal, breach of confidentiality etc. but his results were successful. So it's a mixed bag.

Characters were well-drawn and thorough, without any paper doll cutouts, so I was interested in the minor and background characters as well as the three main players.

I just found myself wishing for more of a conclusive resolution. I am not a big fan of endings - I think what matters is the process, not how it all turns out, but it seemed that this story simply stopped, and whatever literary and plot arc energy that was generated by the search simply dissipated into the wind.
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- Pamela Harvey "glam"

Plodding, anachronistic, and poorly read

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

What a dreadfully dull read. All the characters essentially had the same (Jane Austen era) narration style, and it made absolutely no sense at all. No "twist" in the second half (as some other reviewer suggested, and I blame that reviewer for time wasted in getting through this tripe), and no resolution. I can only assume that Ullman grew as bored with her story as the rest of us did.

Has By Blood turned you off from other books in this genre?

What "genre" is this? Is the genre "Too lazy to actually research how people lived in the 1970s, so basically set in the 1990s plus a few historical plot devices that require the story to be set in the 1970s"? Maybe some of these things (the N-Judah as night owl bus, the answering machine, mail taking four days within San Francisco) weren't 100% impossible, but so many anachronistic elements were highly implausible.

Would you be willing to try another one of Malcolm Hillgartner’s performances?

And what a terrible reader. Or terrible audio-editor. Really, did no one think to tell him that "analysand" is pronounced "anALlisand" rather than the ridiculous and incorrect "anaLIEsand"? Or the more forgivable but no less wrong pronounciation of the German school, "Gymnasium," as "jimNAHsium" (like American exercise) rather than "gimNASium"?

What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

Boring, boring, and unending. I will never rely on an Audible review again, particularly if the first half hour is as bad as this one.

Any additional comments?

I want my money back.

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- joanilla45

Book Details

  • Release Date: 02-28-2012
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.