The Study of Animal Languages
- By Lindsay Stern
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by Kristin H. Macomber
- March 1, 2020
Married academics learn whether true belief can triumph over misconception.
Here’s a hypothetical query: If a novel unfolds so that its two main characters drift further and further from their apparent life goals as the plot advances — every action turning into a step in the wrong direction and each conversation between them a study in misinterpretations — might these characters find their way to a satisfactory outcome?
The answer, remarkably, is yes. But to get to that conclusion, it helps to be acquainted with “the Gettier Problem,” a philosophical tenet named for an American philosopher who posited that true beliefs can evolve from misconceptions, and that missteps can lead to successful results for all the wrong reasons.
Therein lies the foundation of first-time novelist Lindsay Stern’s The Study of Animal Languages.
Ivan is a tenured professor of epistemological philosophy (and an avid proponent of the Gettier Problem) at a small Rhode Island college. His wife, Prue, is a rising specialist in avian communication in the same college’s biology department.
Ivan and Prue are part of an insular community where they play their parts as dutiful and ambitious academics, each attending to his and her students and problem sets and research, both hoping for accolades as they seek success and preeminence in their chosen fields.
Alas, all is not rosy in this ivory tower. Ivan mindlessly binge-eats his way through his days, jealous of his wife’s professional trajectory, wondering if he’ll ever have another original philosophical idea, hoping against hope that his latest book proposal will be accepted by someone, somewhere, thus rendering his slim academic dossier less problematic.
Prue, who is tantalizingly close to a tenured position, seems intent on throwing roadblocks in her own way as she contemplates an ill-timed leave-of-absence to study abroad, and as her research attracts attention beyond the small circle who will decide her academic fate.
Chaos ensues when Prue delivers a public lecture that Ivan assumed would solidify her tenure bid, but which she uses instead to critique the ethics of her department’s work and, by association, her cohorts’ work, as well. What was she thinking? Ivan wonders. What has she done? Why won’t she settle down?
Can either of them make sense of the other’s life goals?
Enter Frank, Prue’s irascible and mentally ill father, who prefers the world as he perceives it through his unmedicated eyes. Anxious to be present for what he is sure will be his daughter’s game-changing lecture, Frank inflicts havoc on his daughter and son-in-law from the moment he drops into their world, providing a one-man Greek chorus of straight talk (his version, at any rate) to anyone who will listen. And when people don’t, he takes things into his own hands, literally, with unintended and unfortunate results.
Along the way, there is a jumble of scenes populated by characters who are precisely what one might expect to find in small-town New England and within a small-liberal-arts-college faculty. There’s a solipsistic visiting professor and novelist who exists to enchant Prue and annoy and confuse Ivan, and a lovely philosophy student who seems bent on ingratiating herself to her favorite professor.
There’s also a young niece who offers a child’s perspective on her unstable grandfather’s eccentricities, and whose presence provides an excuse for an aquarium field trip that begets a pivotal plot twist.
Beyond that, there is a rash of cohorts from all corners of Ivan and Prue’s various realms — a few too many, perhaps, to keep straight.
What pulls The Study of Animal Languages toward its unexpectedly satisfactory conclusion (though not a by-the-book happy ending) is a series of false steps that require Prue and Ivan to face inner truths that neither character had thought silently to themselves, let alone proclaimed aloud to each other.
In the end, the animal language that could benefit most by study is, no big surprise, the use of pedantic academic doublespeak, along with plain old non-verbal communication, between human beings. The birds and the bees, one might conclude, are lucky to be less afflicted by sarcasm, innuendo, or passive-aggressive one-upmanship. At least, I hope they are.
Thankfully, author Stern has skillfully provided a true understanding of how missteps and mistakes can lead to clarity, honesty, and relief — the happiest ending of all.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]
Kristin H. Macomber is a writer in Cambridge, MA, and the mother of a philosophy major.