I’ve been avoiding writing this review. With each passing day, yet another opportunity lost to procrastination. But it’s time to buck up and get it over with. It’s not that The Study of Animal Languages is a bad book, quite the contrary. It’s well-written, smart, and at times, unexpectedly comical. And it is anchored by a main character/narrator who in spite of his many quirks is endlessly endearing. It’s just that stories about marriages in crisis never sit well with me. This dates back to a pivotal experience I had as a child. Cue flashback. I was 8 years old, and on summer break. I spent most of my waking hours stationed in front of a small television in my bedroom, watching everything from children’s programming, to sit-coms, to hour-long police procedurals. Clearly, I was an odd child. My parents, G*d bless them, were busy. And it was a different time. The idea of having to monitor the tv consumption of their inquisitive daughter, never even entered their minds. And so it happened, one fateful evening, that I discovered the film Kramer vs. Kramer. I remember being keenly aware that this movie was not something my parents would approve of me watching. In response, I turned the volume down low. I also rationalized that if there was a child in the film (and there was) then surely a child (meaning, me) could watch it. I seized the moment, and spent the next 90 or so minutes in rapt attention. However, by the end, as the credits rolled, instead of feeling the excitement of getting away with a punishable crime, I was left with a sense of great sadness and anxiety. Not the personal kind, necessarily. I knew my parents would never break-up. These emotions were more generalized, more encompassing, dare I say, more philosophical. It was the realization of the profound emotional hurt we’re capable of inflicting on each other, including those we love. That was a lot for my 8 year old self to take in…but, in fairness, I was asking for it.
Which brings me back to The Study of Animal Languages. The story takes place in the world of academia. The married couple in question, Ivan and Prue, seem to be established in their respective fields. Ivan is a professor of philosophy, specifically epistemology. Prue is a professor/researcher in the field of ornithology, with a focus on animal communication. Their differences in personality are immediately obvious, and the reader is constantly reminded of these differences by observations and statements made by other characters in the book. The dynamic between the couple is refreshing in its modernity. Although we see their relationship primarily through the lens of only a few days, their roles are clear. Prue is a career-driven dynamo. She is a highly respected scientist who brings fearless energy to her work. Of course, she is also a wife. But one gets the distinct feeling that this title wouldn’t take any of the top spots if Prue were asked to produce a list of her personal accomplishments. Ivan, on the other hand, is suffering from a bit of inertia. His number of published academic articles is noticeably slim in comparison to his wife’s. From the outside, he’s viewed as dull and tightly-wound. But under closer-examination, and with his point-of-view as our guide, the reader can clearly see he is a man of great passion. A great passion for his wife. Ivan knows Prue is brilliant-a rock star in her field. And so, he has taken on the role of supportive husband, whirling through their home carrying trays of hors-d’oeuvres for guests at parties celebrating the triumphs of his illustrious wife. Their marriage has lasted six years under these conditions, but when Prue’s mentally unstable father, Frank, comes for a visit, the cracks in their relationship really begin to show. I mentioned that this novel has comical moments. Unfortunately, much of the comedy comes at the expense of Ivan and his pride or are precursors to Frank’s violently manic episodes. And as much as I wanted to like Prue, as everyone in the novel seems to, I could never fully get there. Perhaps it’s because we don’t get to know her as intimately as we do Ivan, who’s feelings, thoughts, and motivations, we are constantly aware of. Or even more likely, it’s because we see Prue through Ivan’s discerning eyes-a revealing vantage point. In a moment of anger, Ivan describes Prue as “entitled.” And although harshly delivered, that assessment feels accurate. It’s as though she’s become too accustomed to her husband handling things-doing the dirty work behind the scenes. When Prue mistakenly assumes Ivan has sent her a large order of flowers-an act of contrition, after an explosive argument the night before-this elicits a warmer response from her towards Ivan, than the very real fact that Ivan has spent days taking care of her volatile father, a man she seems to have little interest in interacting with. But it does take two to tango. And Ivan is nowhere near blameless. They’re a married couple, out of sync, and too afraid to admit it.
The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsay Stern is a story of a marriage in deep peril- a couple forced to reassess their relationship and make hard decisions. For me, the story conjured up those emotions I experienced as a child watching Kramer vs Kramer, and subsequently, as an adult watching the films, Blue Valentine and Marriage Story. It’s great story-telling that locks you in, yet leaves you feeling, quite simply…sad.