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Publisher's Summary

San Francisco, 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 a downtown office 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 WASP family, and her quest to track down her birth mother.

The professor is 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.

©2012 Ellen Ullman (P)2012 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

Critic Reviews

“An irresistible Hitchcockian page-turner, brooding and solipsistic.” ( Publishers Weekly)
“By Blood is a poetic and masterful story that takes some unexpected turns. The prose suggests Poe and Kafka, which heightens the mysterious tone that surrounds both the professor and the client and gives the novel a timeless feel.” ( Booklist)
“A rich, taut, psychologically nuanced novel…. A first-rate literary thriller of compelling psychological and philosophical depth.” ( Kirkus Reviews)

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Average Customer Ratings


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  • Pam
  • United States
  • 02-17-13

Wanted to listen in one sitting

I didn't want to stop listening to this book, because I wanted to find out what happened. I became intensely involved in the lives of the characters, and felt like I learned new aspects of World War II as well.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Beth Anne
  • Philadelphia, PA, United States
  • 12-31-12

Creepy, intriguing story with history & mystery!

This book was a whole slew of crazy, creepy, intrigue. I loved every second of reading it.

The narrator was so shady. He starts off this normal guy...and as it all unfolds...I got more and more freaked out by him. I loved how he described the crows that haunted him. I thought he was so scary the more and more involved he became in the "patient's" story.

The historical aspect of the novel...the whole story about the patient and her family and WW2...was sad and rich and heavy. At times i found myself as engrossed as the narrator.

This novel was fantastic. I love the feeling I got while reading it. Like in a way I was as creepy as the guy listening in. Because I began to almost root for him to get more involved. I wanted the patient to find the truth, too.

I also liked Malcolm Hillgartner's reading of this book.

So so so good.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Kali
  • Walnut Creek, CA
  • 12-01-12

Top book of 2012 - dark, frantic, and fun.

By Blood by Ellen Ullman rates very high on my top 10 list for 2012. Quick and craggy, rough and honest in a way only the very best noir dares to be, this paranoid narrative takes us through that foggy period in San Francisco's history when the Zodiac killer was running loose and young men back from Vietnam were laying drunk in the streets.

From this dark time springs a dark tale - a man looking to escape troubles in distant cities overhears an intimate discussion in the therapist's office next to him and is drawn in to a tale of woe he is never meant to hear. And we, the Audible listeners, are drawn in with him. Lines divide as we all eavesdrop on this tale within a tale, and the picture blurs as we realize as the listener our narrator may be a bit short of a full deck. Boundaries are crossed, tensions are high, mysteries are developed and not always answered, scenes are set perfectly, and a wonderful listening experience is created in this book.

Malcolm Hillgartner's narration is perfect for By Blood. He manages, while still sounding pleasant to the ears, to also portray someone slightly unhinged with his tone and this perfectly portrays the words of the story's narrator. Just listening to him call out each chapter with a real intensity was a pleasure. Truly an A+.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Story Lurches to a Stop, Leaving No Skid Marks

This book has an interesting premise, a conventional story arc (displaced persons after WWII) with an unconventional viewpoint, and has all the ingredients for a page-turning identity search. I've only given it a 4, so I must have kept reading for SOME reason...

However, since most of the characters are women, perhaps it could have been more dramatic if the professor/voyeur was a male voice, since he is a male character in the story.

In my opinion, the ending or resolution was abrupt and abortive, with no acknowledgement of the academic/voyeur's ends-justify-the-means success. There was no sense of "closure" - whatever that may mean right now - in "The Patient" letting go of her birth mother and others (might be spoiling if I get more specific). The voyeuristic and scamming techniques used by the academic who listened to the entire course of the therapy could be considered inappropriate, illegal, breach of confidentiality etc. but his results were successful. So it's a mixed bag.

Characters were well-drawn and thorough, without any paper doll cutouts, so I was interested in the minor and background characters as well as the three main players.

I just found myself wishing for more of a conclusive resolution. I am not a big fan of endings - I think what matters is the process, not how it all turns out, but it seemed that this story simply stopped, and whatever literary and plot arc energy that was generated by the search simply dissipated into the wind.

11 of 16 people found this review helpful

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Plodding, anachronistic, and poorly read

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

What a dreadfully dull read. All the characters essentially had the same (Jane Austen era) narration style, and it made absolutely no sense at all. No "twist" in the second half (as some other reviewer suggested, and I blame that reviewer for time wasted in getting through this tripe), and no resolution. I can only assume that Ullman grew as bored with her story as the rest of us did.

Has By Blood turned you off from other books in this genre?

What "genre" is this? Is the genre "Too lazy to actually research how people lived in the 1970s, so basically set in the 1990s plus a few historical plot devices that require the story to be set in the 1970s"? Maybe some of these things (the N-Judah as night owl bus, the answering machine, mail taking four days within San Francisco) weren't 100% impossible, but so many anachronistic elements were highly implausible.

Would you be willing to try another one of Malcolm Hillgartner’s performances?

And what a terrible reader. Or terrible audio-editor. Really, did no one think to tell him that "analysand" is pronounced "anALlisand" rather than the ridiculous and incorrect "anaLIEsand"? Or the more forgivable but no less wrong pronounciation of the German school, "Gymnasium," as "jimNAHsium" (like American exercise) rather than "gimNASium"?

What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

Boring, boring, and unending. I will never rely on an Audible review again, particularly if the first half hour is as bad as this one.

Any additional comments?

I want my money back.

5 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating. I love the strange vehicle the author chose to tell this sad, but very important story. Rich in history - both WWII and San Fransscos gay pride movement of the 1970s a rewarding read.

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Finding birth parents doesn't guarantee a happy en

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes, especially to anyone who has been adopted or is interested in knowing more about incidents that occurred to Jewish women during the Nazi occupation of Germany.

Did the plot keep you on the edge of your seat? How?

The story starts slowly, but has you completely engaged by books end. Some people may not like the ending, due to a few loose ends, but I did not feel a need to know more.

Have you listened to any of Malcolm Hillgartner’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

Reamde-that was a 5 out of 5 star rating for me as well.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

I was very emotional at the explanations of Bergen Belsen.

Any additional comments?

By Blood is sort of a play off the main themes in this book. Are we related by blood? Can you be Jewish by blood? In this book a 30-ish woman, whose name remains unknown, knows she is adopted and seeks out her mother. To her surprise, she finds out her mother is Jewish and does not have any idea what to make of it. Here within these pages lies a wonderful story of a daughter finding her birth mother and a disturbing story of what her mother endured as a Jewish girl during the Nazi-reign.

I found this story cleverly constructed with the use a "the professor", who has moved in to the room next to a therapists office after being put on some sort of leave from his school after being found to have a relationship with a student. The professor soon realizes he is next door to the therapist and eavesdrops on session between the therapist and, what he calls, "his patient", who happens to be the 30-ish girl previously mention. He becomes interested in her story when he finds out she is adopted and quietly listens in on each session.

The professor is rather obsessive and uses his credentials to seek out information that leads the patient to find her mother. The patient, nor the therapist, has no idea their sessions are being overheard by the professor, but the professor is cleaver and works out a way to send her the information he unearths, using a false name.

The patient eventually goes to meet her birth mother and learns the atrocities she endured as a Jewish girl in Berlin during the 40's. The patients birth mother was first moved to a Lebensborn, a Nazi-run program where children with Aryan characteristics where "bred", then given away to deserving SS families. After, the patients mother is found out to be Jewish, even though she has Aryan characteristics, she is moved to a Concentration Camp at Bergen Belsen, where she was eventually liberated.

As the story moves along, the POV really shifts from the professor to the patient. At the end of the story, the fact that the professor was even a part of the story did not matter any longer, the focus was completely on the patient. Although, some people may feel a desire to know what happened to the professor, I found myself completely focused in the patient.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Michal
  • Scotsdale, AZ, United States
  • 04-18-12

Hang in for the 2nd half

Very interesting read. I almost quit several times through the first half, but I'm glad I stuck with it as the ending was powerful. This is an excellent exploration for everyone who has ever wondered what it would be like to have different parents.

2 of 4 people found this review helpful

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creative and different

Would you consider the audio edition of By Blood to be better than the print version?

not really though well read
i liked the accents

What other book might you compare By Blood to and why?

TV- In Therapy

What does Malcolm Hillgartner bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

Good grasp of language

If you could rename By Blood, what would you call it?

Admittedly not a great name
I'd have to think about it!

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Laura
  • Stuart, FL, United States
  • 03-11-13

by boring

What disappointed you about By Blood?

The story was boring. The plot was poor.

What do you think your next listen will be?

the life of pi

How did the narrator detract from the book?

I just didn't buy into his interest in the main character.

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

Not for me.

0 of 2 people found this review helpful