The Study of Animal Languages

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 19 Mar 2019

Member Reviews

Published by Viking on February 19, 2019

The Study of Animal Languages is a domestic drama. In most respects, it follows the conventions of a domestic drama. A couple grows apart. Infidelity is suspected. The husband is likely having a midlife crisis and must come to terms with the causes of his unhappiness. Nothing in this novel surprises, other than quality of the writing, which saves the novel from being a novelized Lifetime movie.

Ivan Link’s wife Prue has completed a study of animal communication that suggests birdsongs may be a form of language. Ivan is a philosophy professor. He studies epistemology, the gap between data and truth. He doesn’t think Prue’s study proves anything. He may be right about that, but academic research can advance understanding even if it fails to produce a startling breakthrough. Since Ivan presumably understands that, his complaints about his wife’s research must stem from something other than a belief that birdsongs are not a language.

The reader will quickly suspect that Ivan is jealous of Prue. She is likable and thus well liked in the academic community while Ivan, who is pedantic and self-isolating, is treated more as a respected colleague than a friend. Cracks are forming in their marriage, including disagreements about fellowships and foreign travel (Prue has opportunities; Ivan likes to stay at home) and stress caused by Frank, Prue’s bipolar father.

The conflict between Ivan and Prue begins to reach a climax when Prue presents a paper that includes a fascinating discussion of the barriers to proving that sounds are part of a language when the listener has no way to assign meaning to the sounds. During her presentation, Prue asks how scientists can consider the emotional responses of voles to be sufficiently akin to human responses to use voles for biomedical research, while at the same time terrorizing them to determine how they respond to terror. I am not a particular friend of voles but the question merits serious consideration. Ivan, however, thinks Prue is a fool to question the ethics of animal research in a presentation to an audience that consists largely of animal researchers. The opportunity to gain tenure, Ivan believes, depends in large part on not pissing off faculty members who might end up on a tenure committee. Yet Ivan later proves that he can be just as career–destructive as his wife. His midlife meltdown is classic.

At other points, the novel’s focus is on Frank and on the differing efforts that Ivan and Prue make to cope with his dementia. Frank believes that sharks in an aquarium are speaking to him, conveying feelings rather than words. The story draws parallels between animal suffering, which animals are unable to articulate with words because they have no human vocabulary, and Frank’s suffering, which he is unable to articulate in a way that others understand because of his mental illness.

Ultimately, the plot makes its way to the well-trampled ground of marital infidelity, or at least to suspicion that it might be occurring. Joyless sex, odd telephone calls, a new acquisition that might have been a gift from an admirer, and absences from home are all clues, but do they justify the conclusion that hanky–panky is afoot? And if the suspicion is correct (or even if it is not), what is the correct response? Confrontation? Retaliation? Maintaining the unhappy status quo for fear that change will be worse?

Throw Ivan’s impressive meltdown into the mix and you have the familiar ingredients of a domestic drama.  Despite its familiar subject matter, the story’s background details and observant prose set The Study of Animal Languages apart from other novels that dissect marriages. The novel offers a focused examination of two people on a collision course and the choice they must make about their respective (or joint) futures.

The depiction of the unbalanced Ivan at midlife is a bit over-the-top, particularly when contrasted with the blameless Prue. While Prue purports to share responsibility for the wall that has arisen between them, it is clear that all the fault all rests with Ivan. I suspect that shared fault is more typical, but I can't condemn a novel for depicting an atypical marriage.

Since Ivan is a philosopher, the reader should expect a bit of philosophy. The novel’s big lesson is that life is not about figuring out what really matters (unless you're a philosopher), but “figuring out that your life was never even about you to begin with. You’re not the hero. You’re just someone in the cast.” That is a lesson everyone should learn.

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The book was very, very slow to get into then once the plot picked up, it ended soon after. Disappointing because I felt like it had a lot of promise. people with interesting careers, flawed characters. It just didn't click and the unreliable narrator didn't help
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I thought the concept of this book and even the evolution of the story was right up my alley. The part that made this book just mediocre for me was the writing style and the details. Sometimes it felt overly dramatized and other times it felt overwritten and verbose.
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Slow start and characters not lovable. I do believe that editing is a lost talent and this may have been helped if it was edited a bit more.
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This one was a bit fun to read but seemed to get off to a bit of a slow beginning.  Once it got going for me, about 1/3 into the book, I started to care about the story and the characters.  I never really felt a connection with any of them, but I wanted to see how it would all work out for them.  A married couple, different in many ways but both academic, start to see cracks in their relationship.  This book had its moments.  I don't know if it's one that will stay with me after a short amount of time.
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Thank you to the publisher and Netgalley for a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.  

Ivan and Prue are a married couple who are also professors at the same university.  They couldn't be more different- Prue is a vibrant social biolinguistic professor with lots of promising opportunities in her future, whereas Ivan is a shy philosophy professor without any prospects such as tenure, like his wife. 

This novel definitely captures challenges of a marriage, however I felt like there was more I wanted to see. I really enjoyed the flashbacks in the beginning and would have liked to see more of that. The author is extremely talented, her words flowed effortlessly across the page and I felt like I understood Ivan and how he saw his life. I also enjoyed the relationship between Ivan and Frank. The mental illness aspect was fascinating and at times, heartbreaking. 

Overall, I did like the story but I think I expected a little more interaction from Ivan and Prue, as though something was missing.
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This one started out a bit slow for me but picked up about 70 pages in. Was good but not great. Kinda funny.
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Thank you to the author and publisher for providing me with a digital ARC of this title via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

I thought this title sounded really interesting from the summary. I thought it would be a book I'd really enjoy. I was wrong. I found it to be overbearing and obnoxious. It seemed to bounce around from a novel about philosophy to animal rights to mental illness to marriage and relationships. By the end of the book, I could see how they all tied together, but getting there was a long bumpy ride. I found the characters to be selfish, pretentious, impuslive, and  unlikable. Therefore it was really difficult to get involved in their story or to care what happened to any of them. I am sorry, but for me, reading this book was tedious and unenjoyable.
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I loved this short novel and am eager to re-read it soon. It's beautiful sentences and concentrated characters and dialogue are fascinating in their exactness. I loved how powerful this more quiet of plots turned out to be, and it relates to me that some of the most important and most difficult parts of being alive is in the ordinary and the singular choices and moments that build to others, and the things we carry with us while we make those choices. Stern masterfully balances all of this and I'm incredibly impressed. I loved it.
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The Study of Animal Languages is about Ivan, an academic who has been granted tenure but is struggling to publish a book of philosophy, his scientist wife Prue, and his father-in-law, who is bipolar and has come to visit. Ivan and Prue have found themselves unable to communicate with each other, despite both studying different forms of communication. I usually really like books set in academia - it's such a weird, insular world that can be a great setting for pathos and satire. This book, however, is much more straightforward - the importance here is the relationships between the characters, not the setting. Stern writes beautifully, and the characters are complex. However, I couldn't find myself caring much about them - they are so self-centered that they become tedious. I think adding in some charm would have gone a long way. While this one wasn't for me, if you're looking for a well-written character study it might be for you!
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I enjoyed reading about academics as I work at a University so the characters issues were familiar. I found the storyline about the mental health issues of the family members disturbing particularly as the daughter seemed to have inherited her father's mental instability.
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Thank you, Netgalley and PENGUIN GROUP Viking for the ARC!

Shoutout to my home state of Rhode Island! I loved the actual info on animal languages, how animals communicate. I liked that the resolution felt realistic. 

But overall I struggled with this. It was uneven. There were times where something intense happened and I couldn’t read fast enough for about ten pages. But more often it was slow, dense, and/or wordy. I don’t usually have a problem with big words in a book (I usually learn something!) but the big words used here were...I don’t know if they were supposed to show how some of the characters struggled to relate to others? It just didn’t work for me—it made it harder to read and didn’t serve the story enough to outweigh the struggle in reading it. The book also sometimes got too deep into the science or other complicated things, seemingly without reason.
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Thank you NetGalley and Viking Books for a free copy of the book.

This is the story of Ivan and Prue, he a philosophy professor and she a renowned ornithologist, specializing in biolinguistics. They have been married for a long time, and thanks to new additions to their social group and Prue's father, Frank, they start sensing tension in their relationship. Frank comes to town to hear his daughter to deliver a lecture on birdsong which is expected to finalize her tenure and that does not go as planned. What happens next and how they deal with the unexpected crises forms the crux of the book.

Right from the beginning, it is obvious that Ivan and Prue are polar opposites, he is a purely logical man and logic governs his personal life too, a little too much, one might add; on the other hand, Prue is an upcoming expert in her field, full of life and wanting to explore newer things in life. The irony here is that despite both of them being experts in communication, they just cannot seem to convey their problems to each other. I enjoyed the writing which is executed painstakingly by the writer. However I wish the supporting characters and the conflicts within had more depth.
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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
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2750291209
https://www.librarything.com/work/22351905/book/166765274
https://twitter.com/SheTreadsSoftly/status/1106268677085818881
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Wordy, and not in a good way. Felt like I was reading the dictionary, and it got to be too much. This wasn't a fun book to read, and I didn't enjoy it. This was one I was looking forward to. Bummer.

Thanks to author,publisher and Netgalley for the chance to read this book. While I got the book for free,it had no bearing on the rating I gave it.
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I read about 20% of this book. And then I lost interest. It just didn't hold my attention. It seemed a bit too cliched.
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It’s a campus novel. A modern one, at least I assume so, given what I take to be discussions of contemporary philosophical  and linguistic theories. But it’s still a campus novel, a bit reminiscent of David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury, given the time frame and the farcical aspect. The writer has a keen voice and perception. Lots of imagery popped out. But at the end, I felt the work was slight. Promising, however.
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This was incredibly cerebral and left me feeling a bit down with the ending but it was very well written.  It's also a surprisingly fast read.  The characters are well written and it's an intense story taking place over the course of a weekend.  It presents a bigger picture but at times all the steps don't necessarily feel like they are falling into something bigger.  But I appreciated this overarching experiment, it was very well done.

The Study of Animal Languages came out last month on February 19, 2019, and you can purchase HERE. 
 
With the exception of bee dances, which articulate the location of distant food, no other animal communication system has been shown to exhibit syntax, or to refer to objects outside the being's immediate environment. Most linguists therefore consider their sounds--hissing, lowing, barking, and so forth--to be spontaneous responses to stimuli, no more significant than human laughter. This deficit helps explain why animals cannot think. It helps explain why they have not ascended, as we have, into the light of reason, but remain shackled, so to peak, to the walls of Plato's cave.
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The Study of Animal Languages by Lindsey Stern tells the story of the breakdown of Ivan and Prue’s marriage through the lens of a chaotic week with Prue’s father, Frank, an elderly bipolar man who comes to stay with the couple to watch his daughter, and ornithologist, give an important speech about her research on bird language. Anyone who has experienced a love one’s struggles with mental illness will immediately recognize the stress and dread swirling around the family. Through it all, though, Stern handles Frank sensitively and compassionately, making him a sympathetic character; Frank’s emotions are so real and his remorse so deep that I found myself crying on the subway toward the end of the book. In fact, in spite of their flaws and unlikeable moments, I found that I understood and cared about all of the characters in this book. My only regret is that it was so short - I would have happily read 3x more of this story. Thank you to Penguin and Netgalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review - reading and reviewing this was a pleasure! 

Review posted 2/28/19 on:

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2708857262

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The usual wreckage drifts towards me…

Ivan and Prue are married and couldn’t be any different. Ivan is a philosophy professor who lives in a controlled manner, lover of language that longs for it to be exact, ‘like symbols of mathematics’, a languge that can be played with, twisted to mean anything other than what is is. Like philosophy it would ‘eliminate misunderstandings once and for all’ here in lies the humor in the novel, for his marriage crumbles under that exact invader, misunderstanding. Wife Prue studies biolinguistics whose discoveries leads her to believe one day people could understand their ‘birdsong’ as language, not senseless chatter. This form of communication could be very much alive in the animal kingdom, as much as human’s relate to one another, why not they? Certainly studying ‘sounds’ of birds, monitoring them cannot truly tell us what they are saying, feeling, thinking? What about we humans, superior animals and our gorgeous vocabularies? Aren’t our words often fraught with unintended outcomes, consequences, errors, comedies? Words used as camoflauge to hide our real feelings? Words to strip and bare our souls, just as misunderstood depending on whose ears they fall? Prue’s lecture scares Ivan, because he fears no one will take her, nor her intelligence seriously and it all unravels.

Prue’s father Frank comes into town to hear his brilliant daughter lecture, but he is on a downward spiral, his highs and lows having long navigated Prue’s entire childhood. Strange that his inability to corral his thoughts and behavior somehow makes him the most solid character in the novel, and the most likable. Prue and Ivan’s marriage is tested too by writer Dalton Field, whose book she has taken an interest in reading, the attractive visiting author infuriating Ivan. He sees an easy intimacy between them, but no, it has to be his imagination? There are clues something is going on, he can feel a rupture in their love. To make matters worse, people are always surprised that Prue chose a man like him as husband, bland and predictable. Then there is Prue’s niece May, witness to the adults falling apart around her, which gives insight into what life with Frank must have been like for Prue, the fear of his mania as well as the thrill of it. Which makes the reader wonder if that could be why Prue fell in love with someone as stable as Ivan. “It may come as a surprise to you, Dad, but you’re not a prophet. You’re a provocateur.” I was focused more closely on Frank and the influence his mental illness had on his daughter’s life. It was beautiful and sad because he does love her. Ivan loves Prue as well, without a doubt, but he never feels quite worthy while at the same time feels superior, it’s so odd.

Ivan is methodical until he let’s his fear of losing Prue ravage his common sense. He is going to stay on the sinking ship until the end. Will he save their love? Salvage the wreckage of his marriage, patch up the cracks caused by his misinterpretations of their love language? Ivan thinks he is nothing like Frank, there seems to be a condescending attitude toward his father-in-law, but as he unravels he may find he has more in common with him than he ever imagined. A novel that speaks in more than words or birdsong.

It’s a clever story of academics turned foolish. I enjoyed it, but some may not as the excitement is quiet.

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