Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

By Blood

By Blood

3.9 19
by Ellen Ullman

See All Formats & Editions

The award-winning writer returns with a major, absorbing, atmospheric novel that takes on the most dramatic and profoundly personal subject matter

San Francisco in the 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 an office in a downtown tower


The award-winning writer returns with a major, absorbing, atmospheric novel that takes on the most dramatic and profoundly personal subject matter

San Francisco in the 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 an office in a downtown tower 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, avowedly WASP family, and her quest to track down her birth mother. The professor is not just absorbed but 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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Set in a politically roiling mid-1970s San Francisco, Ullman’s third novel (after The Bug) is a psychological thriller probing an uneasy, unwitting three-way relationship between a young lesbian, her German-born psychologist, and a voyeuristic academic. A disgraced 50-something classics professor, forced on academic leave pending an ethics investigation, rents office space next door to Dr. Dora Schussler, the daughter of a prominent Nazi, and finds himself entranced by her interactions with her patient, a lesbian economist in her 30s trying to make sense of her own adoption. The academic feels for the young woman, reflecting his own sense of not fitting in (an obsessive-compulsive, he has his own long history of analysis), and begins organizing his life around the patient’s visits, in time becoming convinced that Dr. Shussler is impeding her patient’s search. His empathy spurs him to research the patient’s adoption himself, after which he clandestinely sends her reports, leading them all through the harrowing melodrama of a German woman caught in the Holocaust before making her way to Israel. Though this is an irresistible Hitchcockian page-turner, brooding and solipsistic, it lands too softly and feels unfinished, considering Dr. Schussler’s inflammatory but untouched past. Agent: Jay Mandel, WME Entertainment. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

“Smart, slippery . . . Ullman arranges her players efficiently. But what astounds is how she binds them to one another . . . It's a narrative striptease. And Ullman has such fun with it.” —Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review

“A thrilling page-turner of a book . . . Book clubs of America, take note. By Blood is what you should be reading. Ullman is someone we all should be reading.” —Ed Siegel, Newsday

“What is most distinctive about Ullman's voice . . . is the way it sounds fully formed, mature both intellectually and emotionally.” —Jenny Davidson, Slate

“Like analysis, [By Blood] has urgency--as if, by talking and talking, a solution will be found. Like history, it extends in all directions . . . Like the best novels, it's irresistible--twisty-turny, insightful, revelatory--funny when it's tragic, and complicated when it's funny.” —Minna Proctor, NPR.org

“A literary inquiry into identity and legacy . . . A gripping mystery . . . The storytelling is compelling and propulsive . . . Ullman is also a careful stylist.” —Carolyn Kellogg, The Los Angeles Times

“Rewarding . . . Deepy, lengthy and rewarding therapy is as close as most people get to reading their lives as a novel. Here is a novel that offers itself as a deepy, lengthy and rewarding version of a therapy. The memory of reading it remains quite intense.” —Alan Cheuse, The San Francisco Chronicle

“Marvelously creepy . . . A tricky thing to pull off but Ullman does it beautifully . . . [By Blood] speaks volumes about the way we think about the Jewish past.” —Adam Kirsch, Tablet

“A dark, brooding, and marvelous novel that doesn't really resemble anything else, though disparate elements of it remind me of so many stories I love. The book combines a disturbing confessional intensity, as in Coetzee's Disgrace, Lasdun's Horned Man, and Tartt's The Secret History, with a paranoid claustrophobia akin to that of The Conversation, Coppola's surveillance masterpiece. Surprises from strange and terrible historical alleyways bring to mind Schlink's The Reader and Juan Gabriel Vasquez's, The Informers. And the philosophical underpinnings recall, in their unobtrusiveness and urgency, the best of Iris Murdoch.” —Maud Newton

“The writing is as sharp as the intellect it reveals, with a tension bordering on the manic. ” —Evan Karp, SFArts.org

“A noir gem . . . Creepy-exciting and skillfully ironic at almost every turn . . . We jump into Ullman's prose so we can be carried downstream, over the falls, into the past, rolled and jostled here, then there . . . [An] amazing novel.” —Merry Gangemi, Lambda Literary

“Ullman first earned praise for her memoir Close to the Machine (2001), about her experiences as a female programmer in the formative years of Silicon Valley, and followed that with an ambitious, Kafkaesque debut novel, The Bug (2003), which also drew from her experiences in computer-human interface. Nine years later, her second novel thematically interweaves fate, identity, obsession and genetics into a propulsive page-turner that shows a profound understanding of character. It's a multilayered mystery (in the same way that Dostoyevsky was a mystery writer) and an inquiry into the subjective nature of narrative . . . A first-rate literary thriller of compelling psychological and philosophical depth. ” —Kirkus (starred review)

“An irresistible Hitchcockian page-turner. ” —Publishers Weekly

Library Journal
In 1970s San Francisco, an ousted professor takes an office downtown, hears a patient conversing with her therapist in the room next door, and is soon wrapped up in the patient's story. The woman has tracked her roots back to a Catholic charity that trafficked in freshly baptized orphans after World War II, and the professor quickly (if anonymously) helps carry the quest from there. An intriguing premise, and lots of in-house enthusiasm.
Kirkus Reviews
After two well-received books suggested that the author was a great writer for a computer programmer, she makes a big leap here, with a rich, taut, psychologically nuanced novel that has nothing to do with computers. Ullman first earned praise for her memoir Close to the Machine (2001), about her experiences as a female programmer in the formative years of Silicon Valley, and followed that with an ambitious, Kafkaesque debut novel, The Bug (2003), which also drew from her experiences in computer-human interface. Nine years later, her second novel thematically interweaves fate, identity, obsession and genetics into a propulsive page-turner that shows a profound understanding of character. It's a multilayered mystery (in the same way that Dostoyevsky was a mystery writer) and an inquiry into the subjective nature of narrative—how the story and the storyteller reflect each other. Set in San Francisco during the 1970s of Patty Hearst and the Zodiac killer, the novel finds its obsessive, perhaps delusional narrator making a "hasty departure from the university," taking leave during an investigation into murky charges ("Creep. Letch. Pervert. That's what the students...had called me."). He rents an office in a very weird building (at least in his mind), where his unsuspecting neighbor is a therapist whose sessions with one patient the professor can hear clearly. The patient is a lesbian who seems mismatched with her partner, as well as with her adoptive family. The therapist (for mysterious reasons of her own) encourages the patient to explore the mysteries of her bloodline, for whatever resolution the discovery of her birth parents can reveal. The patient, the therapist and the professor each have stories to tell and secrets to reveal, extending back to the Holocaust, as the probing of "genetic fate" ensnares the eavesdropping professor "in the spider's web of compulsion." A first-rate literary thriller of compelling psychological and philosophical depth.
Parul Sehgal
…smart, slippery…Ullman arranges her players efficiently, expertly. But what astounds is how she binds them to one another…How beautifully this book restores to us the uses, the sensuality of sound—our awareness of how much information we are passively gleaning and unconsciously filing away.
—The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

BY BLOOD (Chapter 1)

I did not cause her any harm. This was a great victory for me. At the end of it, I was a changed man. I am indebted to her; it was she who changed me, although I never learned her name.

My involvement with the young woman in question began several years ago, in the late summer of 1974, while I was on leave from the university. I sought to secure for myself a small office in the downtown business district of San Francisco, where I intended to prepare a series of lectures about The Eumenides—The Kindly Ones—the third play in Aeschylus’s great trilogy. A limited budget brought me to the edge of a rough, depressed neighborhood. And my first sighting of the prospective office building—eight begrimed gargoyles crouched beneath the parapet, their eyes eaten away by time—nearly caused me to retrace my steps.

Yet there was no question of my turning back. Immediately upon my arrival in San Francisco, a month earlier, a great gloom had descended upon me. I had arranged my leave in great haste; I knew no one in the area. And it must have been this isolation that had engendered in me a particularly obdurate spell of the nervous condition to which I had been subject since boyhood. Although I was then a grown man of fifty years, the illness, as ever, cast me back into the dark emotions of my preadolescence, as if I remained unchanged the desperate boy of twelve I had been. Indeed, the very purpose of the office was to act as a counterweight to this most recent spell, to get me dressed and out of the house, to force me to walk on public streets among people, to immerse myself, however anonymously, in the general hum of society; and in this way, perhaps, sustain the gestures of normal life.

It was therefore imperative that I do battle with my trepidations. I suppressed my fears of the neighborhood and my distress at the building’s dreary mien. We were in the midst of the Great Stagflation, I reminded myself. The whole city (indeed the entire country) had a blasted, exhausted air. Why should the building before me not be similarly afflicted? I therefore turned my gaze from the eyeless gargoyles, told myself there was no reason to be unnerved by the shuttered bar on the ground floor (whose sign creaked in San Francisco’s seemingly perpetual wind). Somewhat emboldened by these mental devices, I took the final steps to the entryway.

I opened the door to a flash of white: a lobby clad entirely in brilliant marble. So clean and smooth was this marble that one had the sudden impression of having entered a foreign landscape, a snowy whiteout, where depth perception was faulty. Through the glare I seemed to see three cherubs floating above the elevators, their eyes of black onyx, which, as I watched in fright, appeared to be moving. It took some moments to understand what hung before me: elevator floor indicators, in the form of bronze cherubs, their eyes circling to watch the floor numbers as the cars rose and fell.

To the right of the elevators was a stairway, above it a sign directing visitors to the manager’s office on the mezzanine. I climbed this short flight—its marble steps concave from years of wear—then I followed the manager into the elevator and rode with him up to the eighth floor (the cherubim ogling us, I imagined). He led me along hallways lined with great slabs of marble wainscoting, each four feet wide and as tall as an average man of the nineteenth century. Finally we stood before a door of tenderly varnished fruitwood, its fittings—knob, back plate, hinges, lock, mail slot—all oxidized to a burnt golden patina.

The room he showed me was very small. The desk, settee, and bookcase it contained were battered. The transom above the door had been painted shut. But I had already decided, on the strength of the building’s interior materials—clearly chosen to withstand the insult of time—that this would be my office. So with the manager’s agreement to restore the transom to working order, I signed a one-year lease, to commence in three days, the first of August. And then throughout the first weeks of my tenancy, while I struggled to regain my footing and begin my project, I was calmed by the currents of dark, cool air that flowed through the transom (the sort of mysterious air that seems to remain undisturbed for decades in the deep interiors of old buildings), and by the sight of the aged Hotel Palace across the way, where I could, in certain lights, see the doings of guests not prudent enough to close their shades.

Each weekday, I rode downtown on the streetcar, anticipating the pleasures of sitting at my desk, the rumble of the traffic eight stories below me. Before reaching the city center, however, one had to pass a grim procession of empty storefronts, vacant lots, and derelict buildings—a particularly blighted district. Nevertheless, despite the proliferation of such neighborhoods, the good San Franciscans seemed to rouse themselves each morning to perform at least the motions of civic life, producing an air (however false) of gainful industry. This impression of restorative public energy helped me to put myself aside, so to speak, and by month’s end I had made progress on my lectures, producing my first coherent set of notes.

Then, shortly after Labor Day, as I sat down to draft the first talk in the series, I found that the acoustical qualities of the office, previously so regenerative, had abruptly changed. Cutting through the pleasant social drone from the streets below, superseding it in both pitch and constancy, was an odd whirring sound, like wind rushing through a keyhole. And just audible above the whir, coming in uneven and therefore intrusive intervals, was a speaking voice, but only its sibilants and dentalizations—only the tongue and teeth, as it were. I am certain it was only the general darkness of my mood, but I felt there was something mocking and threatening in this sibilance, for the sound drew me to it the way a cat is lured—psst, psst—for drowning.

I jumped up from my desk determined to know the source of these intrusions. Immediately I suspected the doors to the adjoining offices. My room, small as it was, had two interior doors to what were once communicating offices, both doors now kept locked. Aside from noticing the fine wood of which they were made, I had paid these vestigial entryways no attention, as I had never heard anything issuing from them. Indeed, I had had no awareness of the other offices at all, my goal in securing my own room having been, as I have said, to find a place outside of my own life, so to speak, to immerse myself in a general, anonymous social sea.

Now forced to consider the reality of the tenants around me, I went out into the hall. The stenciled letters on the office door to my left identified its occupants as “Consulting Engineers.” I moved my ear closer and heard nothing, but through the frosted glass in the door’s upper portion (unlike my office, many doors retained their original etched-glass panels, with finely wrought patterns), I could make out two heads moving, as if over a desk or drafting table. The only odd thing I noticed about this office was that its number was out of sequence, being 803, whereas mine was 807, and my other neighbor’s 804. I then recalled the building manager saying, when I signed the lease, that tenants, as they changed offices over the years, were permitted to take their numbers with them as long as they remained on the same floor, their suite numbers obviously constituting some kind of property or identity. And indeed, as I looked around the hallway, I saw that the office numbers were a complete jumble, 832 next to 812 next to 887, and so on, indicating that the lessees had proved themselves loyal to the building and to the eighth floor but were otherwise restless and inconstant. I wondered for a moment if I should want to retain 807 in the event that I should move away from my neighbor, and I decided that I would, for there was something orderly in the descent from eight to seven passing around zero, and, in the number 7, perhaps an aura of luck.

Rousing myself from these distractions and resuming the surveillance of my neighbors, I came to the office on my right, number 804. As I drew closer, the whir became unmistakable, as did the voice. There was no glass panel in this door; its gold letters simply read, “Dora Schussler, Ph.D.”

I stood immobile in the hall for some seconds. My first association with the designation “Ph.D.” was that this Dr. Schussler should be an academic like myself, and that she and I should coexist quite well, her time being spent in the quiet pursuits of reading and writing. Why, then, was there this whirring, and this persistent hissing? And why hadn’t I heard it from the first, on the day I inspected what was then my still prospective office, thereby preventing me from being bound to such an incompatible neighbor?

These questions (posed to myself with an aggrieved, affronted, indignant air) distracted me from seeing the truth of my situation, which became clear only as I stared at the swirls of the ancient, wear-darkened broadloom that lined the hall. I recalled the first time I had ever heard a sound like the one issuing from Dr. Schussler’s office, which had been many years ago, in the office of one of the many therapists I had had reason to visit during the course of my life. In the waiting area, there had been a small beige plastic machine, placed on the floor, which had given off just such a whir, its role being to blur the clarity of the spoken word that might be audible from the therapeutic offices, thereby preventing anyone, as he waited, from understanding what was being said within (though I myself, still a young man, often tried to overhear, telling myself such curiosity was natural). With great force, the whole period of time surrounding my meetings with the psychotherapist came back to me, and I could see quite clearly the little yellow lamp she kept on a low table beside her, and the vine that covered the single north-facing window, its leaves perpetually trembling.

I did not wish to recall this portion of my life, especially not at the office where I had sought to escape the great black drapery of my nervous condition. Indeed, finding myself tied to such an enterprise seemed to me an evil joke, as I had wagered both my emotional health and my professional reputation against the efficacy of the therapeutic relationship. Over the course of thirty-five years—meeting weekly, twice a week, sometimes daily—I had looked across small rooms into the bewildered, pitiable faces of counselors, therapists, social workers, analysts, and psychiatrists, each inordinately concerned about his or her own professional nomenclature, credentials, theories, accreditations; all of them, in the end, indistinguishable to me. Now, still battling the hooded view of life that had haunted my family for generations, I had come to the conclusion that their well-meaning talking cures, except as applied to the most ordinary of unhappinesses, were useless.

What now could I do to separate myself from this Dora Schussler? How could I escape her analysands with all their fruitless self-examinations, beside whom I was now obligated to spend the remaining eleven months of my lease? I had no legal recourse, I realized. I could not go to the manager and say I had been duped, my neighbor had been hushed, paid off to silence the babblings of her profession on the day I had first surveyed the premises. The situation of my room had not been maliciously misrepresented. I had engaged the office in August, iconic month of the therapeutic hiatus. It was now September. Dr. Dora Schussler, Ph.D. and psychotherapist, was back at work.

By blood Copyright 2012 by Ellen Ullman

Meet the Author

Ellen Ullman is the author of a novel, The Bug, a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine, based on her years as a rare female computer programmer in the early years of the personal computer era. She lives in San Francisco.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

By Blood: A Novel 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
sandiek More than 1 year ago
It is the 1970's and a disgraced professor has come to San Francisco, awaiting the judgement of his college. A tenured professor, there is an allegation of improper student contact, and now he must wait for the wheels of collegial justice to grind out his fate. Knowing that it will take months, he has fled to another city where he is to work on research and papers. It is an unsettled time in San Francisco. The peace and love generation has given way to terrorists similar to those who kidnapped Patty Hearst. The Zodiac killer is stalking the streets. There is unease everywhere, including the professor's mind. He takes an office in a cheap location, and there he finds his solace. He is placed next to a psychiatrist's office, and the construction is so cheap that he can hear through the walls. Not everyone; for most patients there is a white noise machine. But one patient, the one that the professor begins to think of as 'his patient' wants the machine turned off and he can hear everything she says. The patient is caught up in the same identity crisis the professor has fought his whole life. Both feel they don't belong anywhere, that there is something unique about them that sets them apart and makes them unlovable. The patient believes it is her past as an adopted child. The professor comes from a family rife with mental disease and suicides. Both struggle to determine if they are a product of their genes, fated at birth to become what they are, or if they have the strength to define themselves apart from their heredity. The professor has spent years in therapy and has removed himself from that setting. Yet he finds himself drawn into the struggle of the patient as she confronts her adoptive parents. He uses his research skills to find her birth mother and the truth of her background and mails the results to her pretending to be a clerk at the adoption agency. He then sits back and waits to see what will happen, if his gift will enable the patient to move forward with her life or if the truth of her background will swamp her. Ellen Ullman has written a brooding tale that draws the reader in hypnotically. Set in short chapters, the hour long therapy sessions are juxtaposed with the actions of the professors. The story rackets up the suspense as the truth is revealed a bit at a time. Will the therapist have the skills to free the patient, and the professor who looms in the background and is just as needy? This book is recommended for all readers, an atmospheric tale that will not soon be forgotten.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read that explores therapy and the Holocaust from a different perspective than any other book I have read. Deeply moving and memorable. Hope she writes more that incorporates the psychological elements.
barefoot1 More than 1 year ago
This is one of those books where you don't know if you are going to be able to get into it and then you are hooked big time.  The whole psychiatric play between the patient the listener, and the psychiatrist herself is worth the read.   The addition of the Holocaust mystery along with the psychological drama makes this a very engrossing story. and it leads to an engrossing story...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful. Loved it! I couldn't wait to find out about "the patient" and of her "mysterious origins".
reilly1 More than 1 year ago
This book started off great. Unusual story that quickly gets gripping. Liked it a lot until the end.  When I finished the last page I was astounded. No ending. It just stopped. I must have missed something. I go back and reread the last few pages. What????? Great book with awful ending.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The narrator seems to be a man who is so unhappy in his own work that he uses voyeurism to escape. It is an interesting subject with a unique point of view.  While i found it generally gripping, there were moments (generally in the beginning) where the story seem to drag on and I felt I was forcing myself to read on, instead of being pulled to the next page. In all I am very glad I finished to book, the feeling I had from the conclusion of the the story was well worth it. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really wanted to like this book. The plot device of having the narrator listening to the secondary main character's therapy sessions through the wall was a really interesting concept. However, I felt the book didn't deliver. I felt we never got enough answers about the narrator himself and the book ended somewhat abruptly (which does make sense in the context of the book, but left me hanging a little bit). I also did not expect this book to be so heavily focused on the history of World War II. I have no problem with it, I just didn't think the summary of the book made it clear, so I am noting it here.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book started out a little slow, but then the story really developed. About 159 pages into it, I could not put it down. There are themes in the book that really made me think. I enjoyed is book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MisterHistory More than 1 year ago
Anyone who has ever had any experience with psychoanalysis in any capacity will be enthralled immediately. Great read.!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
bayareagirl More than 1 year ago
Not done yet in fairness -- but I don't feel like finishing.  Maybe i jsut don't care all that much about Freudian analysis as a plot revealer.  Maybe suddenly in the next chapter it will get "gripping" and be the promised "page turner'.  I think it is very awkward writing Father hates Catholics, Grandfather hates Jews , oh woe what is to bcome of me?  type thing. I just want to shake the patient and tell her to go live her life. So I am impatient with this book so far. Going to start skipping and scanning but... "Notable Book of the Year"   it is not.