Lindsay Stern – The Study of Animal Languages

Lindsay Stern – The Study of Animal Languages

Ivan and Prue both live for their careers, Ivan in philosophy and Prue as an ornithologist. For some time already, things have not run very smoothly between them, yet, it is not very clear why this is so. Maybe the fact that Prue is a lot more successful than Ivan and close to getting a tenure, or it is the arrival of one of Prue’s favourite authors who joins their circle of friends. When Prue is to give a public lecture which might finalise her post at the college, her father Frank joins them against his daughter’s wish. Frank has been struggling with his bipolar disorder and Prue fears the worst. Just a couple of days and nothing is like it was before anymore in their life.

Lindsay Stern’s debut novel leaves me a bit pondering. On the one hand, she addresses so many important topics that are worth mentioning and thinking about, on the other hand, when I finished it, I had to ask myself: and now? So what? It is a snap-shot of her characters’ life without a clear aim, I just didn’t get her intention for narrating this story.

As said before, there are interesting aspects such as the father’s way of coping with his mental issues, but also what the bipolar disorder does to him. I always find it worth writing and reading about these kinds of issues simply to raise awareness, but also to foster understanding and knowledge and I think literature can be a big help here. I also appreciated the way Stern shows the slight imbalances in the relationship between Ivan and Prue. They are professionals in different fields and certainly should not compete with each other, nevertheless, this is one of their main issues: how can a husband cope with a wife being more successful? In general, Ivan’s behaviour is worth taking a closer look at: he only starts to pay real attention to Prue when he becomes aware of other men’s attraction to her. The war they start is nasty, but I guess this is quite authentic in their situation.

There is a whole lot of theory about languages and especially bird communication. Even though I am a linguist, this did not really grab my attention since I already found the idea behind so strange that I didn’t want to go any deeper in this weird theory. Her style of writing though is quite promising and I surely would try another novel of the author.

James Wood – Upstate

James Wood – Upstate

Alan Querry lives a modest life in Northumberland, he is moderately successful as a developer and after the hard time of the divorce and death of his first wife, he found a new love. When his daughter Helen informs him that her sister Vanessa obviously has another depressive episode, Alan makes his way from England to Saratoga Springs upstate New York where Vanessa lives with her boyfriend Josh and where she teaches philosophy. Alan has never visited her, too many things kept him from crossing the ocean.  Helen joins him and thus, the family is united in a wintry small town and faced with the uncomfortable truths they have avoided for years.

James Wood is best known for being a literary critic for The Guardian and The New Yorker Magazine and teaching literature at Harvard. “Upstate” is his latest novel which focusses on philosophical dilemmas and the bonds of a family.

Clearly, the incident that triggers the family reunion was Vanessa’s accident during which she broke her arm. Yet, this was only the sad climax of a depressive period – something she has known all her life. How come that her younger sister Helen, who had to go through the same hardships as a child and is also struggling with her career, does not know these moody periods and can embrace happiness much easier? Why are some people just stronger, more resilient than others?

It has never been easy for the family members to openly talk about their feelings. Thus, they need to find other topics to layer what they want to say and to make it expressible. For Helen it is music, for Vanessa it has always been philosophy and for Alan, nature seems to be the clue.  At the end, the wintry ice is melting, after it was a cause for a minor road accident of Alan, that also the ice between father and daughter finally melts and gives way for a new spring, a new beginning.

What I enjoyed about the novel is the gentle pace at which it moves and the tenderness with which Wood talks about his characters. The impressive American landscape contrasts with the critical look at the people and especially American politics – we are around 2007 immediately before Obama announced his candidacy. Where nature is a lot more extreme, everything created by man is poorer there than the European counterpart, which more conservative but also more reliable. Such as the people – in the end, the family bonds are stronger and more dependable than the love bonds.