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The Study of Animal Languages: A Novel by…
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The Study of Animal Languages: A Novel

by Lindsay Stern

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325527,543 (3.55)5
"Ivan is a tightly wound philosophy professor whose reverence for logic and order governs not only his academic interests, but also his closest relationships. His wife, Prue, is quite the opposite: a pioneer in the emerging field of biolinguistics, she is young and beautiful, full of life and feeling. Thus far, they have managed to weather their differences. But lately, an odd distance has settled in between them. Might it have something to do with the arrival of the college's dashing but insufferable new writer-in-residence, whose novel Prue always seems to be reading? Into this delicate moment barrels Ivan's unstable father-in-law, Frank, in town to hear Prue deliver a lecture on birdsong that is set to cement her tenure application. But the talk doesn't go as planned, unleashing a series of crises that force Ivan to finally confront the problems in his marriage, and to begin to fight - at last - for what he holds dear. A dazzlingly insightful and entertaining novel about the limitations of language, the fragility of love, and the ways we misunderstand each other and ourselves, The Study of Animal Languages marks the debut of a brilliant new voice in fiction"--… (more)

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First I will admit: it might be more my fault, not the book. There wasn't going to be much of this book that would interest me. I didn't connect with the book. This book is a little like 'Fates & Furies' by Lauren Groff (that I disliked) and all the Jonathan Franzen novels (that I have no interest in reading at all.) It seems to hit all those Franzen tropes that I seem to know about without reading his books. The main character is a man who teaches philosophy, though the book is named after the wife's work. The father-in-law and his ongoing mental problems also take much of the stage. A novel about academia, marriage and communication. It's odd to see a woman writer write a WMFU novel, that's for sure. Not the worst book, but I seem to be missing what was trying to be said. This book also was inspired by 'Elizabeth Costello' by Coetzee that I read before reading this book. There are slight connections, but nothing I would say worth mentioning the book in the acknowledgements for. A possible incident that almost happened in an aquarium would have made this a more interesting book. ( )
  booklove2 | May 30, 2019 |
I work at a university so a story about a academic couple was easy for me to relate to, but I found the storyline about the mental health issues in the family disturbing. The father in law was bipolar and off his meds, and there were indications the daughter was headed the same direction. The story just became uncomfortable to read. ( )
  kerryp | Apr 30, 2019 |
What happens when two very different people fall in love? After the "they got married and lived happily ever after" honeymoon period and reality begins to set in? The Study of Animal Languages explores this concept and reads like a case study of a relationship in decline. The novel begins in medias res after Ivan and Prue have been married for several years. Through flashbacks, we see their version of meet-cute: Ivan mistakes Prue for someone else at a university dinner party, they bond over their meal, have a fantastic night of sex, and fall in love. However, over the years, the qualities that once attracted Ivan to Prue (her unabashed honesty and pride over her academic success) and his own failings (his lack of professional trajectory and resulting envy, his inability to communicate those insecurities) serve to drive the couple apart. Ironic how two academics involved in the study of animal languages can experience such difficulty with conversing and understanding each other. Lindsay Stern equates a communication breakdown to a marriage breakdown -- how can there be intimacy if there is no communication? Overall, I found The Study of Animal Languages well-written and enjoyable though some of the chapters could have used a bit of trimming. Many thanks to Viking and Kasey for sending me a free copy of this book. ( )
  hianbai | Apr 20, 2019 |
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.
http://www.shetreadssoftly.com/2019/03/the-study-of-animal-languages.html ( )
  SheTreadsSoftly | Mar 14, 2019 |
Ivan and Prue both live for their careers, Ivan in philosophy and Prue as an ornithologist. For some time already, things have not run very smoothly between them, yet, it is not very clear why this is so. Maybe the fact that Prue is a lot more successful than Ivan and close to getting a tenure, or it is the arrival of one of Prue’s favourite authors who joins their circle of friends. When Prue is to give a public lecture which might finalise her post at the college, her father Frank joins them against his daughter’s wish. Frank has been struggling with his bipolar disorder and Prue fears the worst. Just a couple of days and nothing is like it was before anymore in their life.

Lindsay Stern’s debut novel leaves me a bit pondering. On the one hand, she addresses so many important topics that are worth mentioning and thinking about, on the other hand, when I finished it, I had to ask myself: and now? So what? It is a snap-shot of her characters’ life without a clear aim, I just didn’t get her intention for narrating this story.

As said before, there are interesting aspects such as the father’s way of coping with his mental issues, but also what the bipolar disorder does to him. I always find it worth writing and reading about these kinds of issues simply to raise awareness, but also to foster understanding and knowledge and I think literature can be a big help here. I also appreciated the way Stern shows the slight imbalances in the relationship between Ivan and Prue. They are professionals in different fields and certainly should not compete with each other, nevertheless, this is one of their main issues: how can a husband cope with a wife being more successful? In general, Ivan’s behaviour is worth taking a closer look at: he only starts to pay real attention to Prue when he becomes aware of other men’s attraction to her. The war they start is nasty, but I guess this is quite authentic in their situation.

There is a whole lot of theory about languages and especially bird communication. Even though I am a linguist, this did not really grab my attention since I already found the idea behind so strange that I didn’t want to go any deeper in this weird theory. Her style of writing though is quite promising and I surely would try another novel of the author. ( )
  miss.mesmerized | Feb 15, 2019 |
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