After two well-received books suggested that the author was a great writer for a computer programmer, she makes a big leap here, with a rich, taut, psychologically nuanced novel that has nothing to do with computers.
Ullman first earned praise for her memoir Close to the Machine (2001), about her experiences as a female programmer in the formative years of Silicon Valley, and followed that with an ambitious, Kafkaesque debut novel, The Bug (2003), which also drew from her experiences in computer-human interface. Nine years later, her second novel thematically interweaves fate, identity, obsession and genetics into a propulsive page-turner that shows a profound understanding of character. It’s a multilayered mystery (in the same way that Dostoyevsky was a mystery writer) and an inquiry into the subjective nature of narrative—how the story and the storyteller reflect each other. Set in San Francisco during the 1970s of Patty Hearst and the Zodiac killer, the novel finds its obsessive, perhaps delusional narrator making a “hasty departure from the university," taking leave during an investigation into murky charges (“Creep. Letch. Pervert. That’s what the students...had called me.”). He rents an office in a very weird building (at least in his mind), where his unsuspecting neighbor is a therapist whose sessions with one patient the professor can hear clearly. The patient is a lesbian who seems mismatched with her partner, as well as with her adoptive family. The therapist (for mysterious reasons of her own) encourages the patient to explore the mysteries of her bloodline, for whatever resolution the discovery of her birth parents can reveal. The patient, the therapist and the professor each have stories to tell and secrets to reveal, extending back to the Holocaust, as the probing of “genetic fate” ensnares the eavesdropping professor “in the spider’s web of compulsion.”
A first-rate literary thriller of compelling psychological and philosophical depth.