The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern
Random House: 2/19/19
eBook review copy; 240 pages
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
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
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.
My review copy was courtesy of Penguin