This probably qualifies as another lit-fic fail for me, by which I don’t mean that the book was a failure; I mostly likely just failed to appreciate it.
It’s one of those oniony books that has a lot of layers, and characters who relate to each other on levels both appropriate and otherwise. Set in the 1960’s, there’s a story of a young woman who finds out she is of European Jewish descent, and finds herself digging into her history by way of trying to locate her birth mother. This story is told by the young woman to her therapist, who is a recent German immigrant and struggles with feelings of counter-transference with her patient based on their antagonistic family histories. And all of this is overheard by our primary narrator, an ambiguously disgraced professor who is leasing the office next door to the therapist’s, and who unhealthily latches on to the therapy sessions as a way to cope with his own obvious issues.
For me, the most pedestrian aspect of the book — the story of the patient’s mysterious history — was the most successful. It was partly due to the thrill of discovery, and partly because the patient herself is a sympathetic character. By contrast, the narrator, when left to his own devices and mental tangents, is an internally chaotic person about whom we know nothing, other than that he seems to be the sort of person who thinks very highly of his own mental faculties but who is in fact controlled by his lizard brain 95% of the time. He’s impulsive and a bit narcissistic and delusional; he sees in everyone’s thoughts and actions what would be of the greatest benefit to him. The primary example of this is that the patient’s request to forgo using her therapist’s white noise machine becomes an opportunity to eavesdrop on her sessions; but there are vague references to some sort of incident, involving one or more of his former students, that seems to point to inappropriate advances made on the assumption that they would be well-received. He also conjures images of both therapist and patient without knowing what either of them look like, but both imaginary doppelgangers are visually poised to enrich his demi-sexual voyeurism. All together, the character reminds me of no one moreso than Lolita’s Humbert Humbert.
Now, I appreciated Lolita, so I’d think this could have worked, except that this character just seemed like a wrapper to add artificial depth to the book. See, over the course of listening to the sessions, the narrator finds himself overly identifying with the patient’s disconnect from her (adoptive) parents, and so involves himself in her search for her birth mother, encouraging her dissociation from the woman who raised her, by anonymously sending her documents that he has found when the patient herself runs into a wall. I think I am meant to be impressed by the author’s making a connection between the two, and delighted with myself for identifying it — it’s very high school advanced lit, to compare and contrast two seemingly unrelated characters — but at the end, I just wondered why. Why was the book centered on him, this nameless guy, who is vaguely inappropriate throughout the book and who has this clouded backstory that is never resolved? Likewise, the point-of-view jumps sporadically to the therapist, to reveal her personal guilt regarding her family history, and it’s not completely tangential, but it seemed lazy. Conveniently omniscient narration is kind of a pet peeve of mine: either go all-in on multiple POVs or stick to the first-person narrative you developed.
I always want to give books like this the benefit of the doubt when I don’t appreciate or enjoy aspects of them, because I can’t help but be affected by the cultural snobbery that elevates some forms of fiction above others. I feel like I circle back to this point every time I review a “lit fic” book, but I don’t know where to draw the line between admitting the shortcomings of my own taste and feeling confident in my declaration that sometimes, a book misses the mark but is considered highbrow nonetheless just because it aimed there. So, By Blood, have my dubious three-stars, because I can’t decide if you’re better than that or not.