Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Study of Animal Languages

The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern
Penguin Random House: 2/19/19
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780525557432 

The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern is a recommended novel about a marriage in crisis due to a lack of communication.

Prue, a professor of in the emerging field of biolinguistics, the study of the biology and evolution of language, is delivering the college's annual lecture in the Life Sciences about birdsong. Her husband, Ivan, a philosophy professor of epistemology at the same college in Rhode Island, has gone to Vermont to pick up her father, Frank, who is determined to attend her lecture. She doesn't want him there as his bipolar disorder can make him and his actions unstable and unpredictable. Ivan is driving Frank to hear the lecture and he is supposed to make sure Frank takes his meds.

Ivan and Prue are very different personalities but so far have made their marriage work, although Ivan now feels a distance between them. The expectation is that this lecture and weekend will represents an important step in her career since Prue's lecture on birdsong will likely result in tenure for her. Both the lecture and the weekend don't go as planned at all. Not only is Frank not taking his meds and causes several problems, Prue's lecture is not at all what Ivan and the college expected. Adding to the drama is Ivan's suspicions that Prue is interested in a visiting professor. 

The Study of Animal Languages follows Ivan and one crisis, misunderstanding, and incident after another. Communication is lacking between everyone in this novel. This is really a chronicle of one disastrous weekend and the breakdown of a couple's marriage. There really is no right or wronged party. Both Ivan and Prue are making errors, although the focus in the novel is about Ivan's mistakes and misreading of situations. For example, Ivan is placed in charge of medicating Frank, while Prue is never proactive, following-up on this important detail until the disastrous end results. Prue also lets Ivan know in front of colleagues that she hasn't turned down a fellowship that he thought she had. Both of these people are disastrous at communication.

The prose is very descriptive - erudite and dense at times - but also insightful. "The more incisive her contributions, she once remarked, in a rare display of cynicism, the more likely they were to elicit from her male interlocutor a bashful deference, disguised as respect." The relationship between Ivan and Prue, as well as with the other characters, is a series of one misstep after another. Stern does capture the limitations of language and how we misunderstand each other and ourselves in numerous ways every day. 

As a character, Ivan is well-developed, as is Frank to some extent, but Prue, remains a bit of a cipher with limited character development. It might have helped the novel out to either know Prue better or provide Ivan with a more complete background. I just kept thinking that the novel, although good, was missing a key piece, an important piece of the puzzle that needed to be communicated. Perhaps that is intended in this novel about limitations of interpersonal communication, but it still felt like it missed the mark.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

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