Literary Wives: The Zookeeper’s Wife

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007) by Diane Ackerman is this month’s pick for the Literary Wives Series.  Please check out the other bloggers’ sites for more reviews on what this non-fiction book says about what it means to be a wife.

Ariel of One Little Library

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn O. of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Cecilia of Only You

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Kay of What Me Read

We are asking the following questions about the wives books.

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

I ended up listening to this book, rather than reading it, so my review might not be as specific as I would like.  I also did not enjoy this book.  It had no real plot arc and the narrative was choppy.  The book would describe some scene or incident and then jump ahead six months or so to another scene or incident.  There was no depth, but instead a telling of small incidents that seemed unconnected.  I had a hard time getting into it because of this jarring form.  It seemed like the author wanted to spend more time listing species and animals and the habits of the zoo’s occupants, rather than introduce us to a story with a clear sense of conflict and resolution.  I guess that’s the “price” of trying to make non-fiction into a story. The main characters, Antonina, her husband Jan, and their son lack depth.  This is partly due to the author’s focus on animals rather than on them.

zookeeper's wife coverThe book is a series of scenes that take place over the years of World War II.  I don’t want to seem heartless about this, because certainly the war is compelling and I have compassion for the many feats of bravery and suffering that occurred during that time.  Many of my favorite books are set during this time. However, this book did not do the war justice.

As to the role of wife, the book did not address that much.  It focused on Antonina, as a heroic figure in the midst of war, but interactions between her and Jan were few and far between.  One small section addressed some conflict between her and Jan, but ultimately she was portrayed as the “good” wife who wasn’t appreciated.  Their many tenants (Jews in hiding) sided with Antonina.

It seemed, however, that the book subtly said that a good wife is one who takes on her husband’s interests.  She was as involved with the zoo and the animals as Jan was, and it seemed like she was a zookeeper more than Jan.  It is unclear from the narrative whether or not Antonina loved animals before she married Jan, but she certainly had a way with them and seemed to be more at ease within animals than humans.  However, she was also compassionate and seemingly unflappable with her human visitors over the course of the war.  She was brave and stood up to army officials when her fear could’ve shown and given things away.

Their son was a funny character.  He was born during the war, and as he grew, his adventures were fun and good comedic relief for the seriousness of the war.  I enjoyed him, and I saw Antonina’s role as a mother also connected with animals. It seemed that her interactions with her son mostly involved his pets and their antics.

I have to be honest. I hated this book.  I thought it was terribly written and poorly organized. The people in it did not move me much, and the focus on lists of animals got boring.  I do not recommend this book, but I do recommend that you see what the other bloggers in the Literary Wives Series have to say about this one.

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30 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The Zookeeper’s Wife

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  1. Wow…perhaps I found it easy to relate to Antonina and Rys because I was raised as an only child in relative isolation on a 180-acre farm with animals as my “best friends” prior to school! It was stated that Antonina had such an innate ability with animals from childhood on, so I guess she was always interested in animals, though like you, I wondered what she might have done in adulthood had she not married Jan. For me, I came away from this reading with a much more personal “heartache” type of feeling than with other books I’ve read with the WWII theme. But I am a rather extreme animal lover who couldn’t imagine hearing all my “babies” being shot in their cages/pens, etc. So sorry you didn’t find it to be a good experience, Emily! But I’m very glad you were able to join us on this one! 🙂

    1. Lynn, you highlight one of the big problems for me in connecting to this. I’m just NOT an animal person! I can honestly see that as a big roadblock for me enjoying this book. I’m more of a people person who loves to read about psychological angst. This book didn’t have a lot of that! Thanks for reminding me that this one will appeal to others, even if it didn’t work for me.

      1. I also cannot imagine having “listened” to this one. I have listened to 4 books and that was enough for me. I am not an auditory learner, benefiting much more from reading or watching, plus I am rather “voice sensitive,” so that just adds another layer of interpretation to the work that rather distorts my own personal understanding. I can imagine this book being very confusing in the audio version, whether you love animals or not! lol Although, most of the others felt it didn’t flow well and they were reading it!! 😉 I love that the LW co-hosts themselves present such diverse perceptions!

  2. No, I agree with you, Emily. This book is a wasted opportunity. I found it a little more interesting the second time I read it, but the first time I was disappointed to not learn more about what I was interested in. Also, I thought the writing was really overblown. Carolyn has some really good comments about that. I felt that the book verged too much on fiction for a nonfiction book, and it made me really uncomfortable.

    1. Yes, exactly. I thought it WAS fiction, and bad fiction at that, until I started researching for this post. It should’ve stayed with one or the other instead of blurring the lines. That made me a confused reader!

      1. I think I said that I had read it before and remembered it as fiction! I was STILL thinking it was fiction until I noticed the call numbers on its spine. So, I think your confusion was warranted.

  3. Emily, call me crazy, but I don’t want my wife to blindly follow my interests. She has her own, but she joins in where needed and asked, as I do with hers. An easy example is being the trailing spouse at an office holiday party, which can be painful. That is what being a couple is all about.

    Sometimes books don’t resonate except for select characters. I have been pleasantly surprised by books and disappointed by others. The fact you made it through one that disappointed shows your allegiance to the cause of reading, maybe with hope it will get better. I have numerous books I could not finish as they became a chore and not a joy or a learning experience.

    Take care. It is a rainy Monday, so a good day to finish a tough read, due to the subject matter – “Death of Santini.” BTG

    1. What is that one about? Baseball?!?!? That is just a shot in the dark.

      I love your views on marriage and relationships. I can tell you are a good husband and that your wife is lucky to have you. You are also lucky to have her! And yes, I struggle to finish books sometimes. I’ve stopped forcing myself to finish in the last few years, but for this blog and certain obligations, I push through!

      1. Thanks. This book is Pat Conroy’s true recollections and reconciliation with his father “The Great Santini.” The hard part is the movie father was not as bad as his father was, but “Death of Santini” also shows how son and father got back to better terms later in his life. In fact, the flack the author took from his father’s relatives about the first book, was silenced by the father himself. At times, “Death of Santini” is a very tough read and at times it is inspiring that through it all you can find some level of redemption, even if you were and still could be a jerk.

        1. Ah. That sounds like a great book. Now I remember that you mentioned it before. My dad is a big Conroy fan, too. I haven’t read much of his work, but your description of this one is making me want to!

          1. If you get a chance, read “The Prince of Tides.” It is probably my favorite. The movie with Barbra Streisand, Nick Nolte and Blythe Danner is good, but the book is even more robust.

  4. Totally agree about the poor organization, and I agree with Kay that it was a “wasted opportunity.” I think I might have used “choppy” in my review, too. So much promise, and it just didn’t come together. The book has a bunch of glowing reviews from the big papers, and I’m not really sure why.

    1. Yeah, I’m not sure why either. I think what the author was trying to do was admirable and even innovative, but like Kay and I discussed above, it tried to hard to be fiction when it wasn’t. And then that ruined the exciting and fascinating nonfiction aspects of it. I would’ve preferred less creativity and storytelling and more nonfiction/reporter type writing. I could see this being more appealing to me if written in the style of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

  5. The more reviews I read abut this book, the happier I am I didn’t try to finish the book. I thought the premise sounded right up my alley, but the way it was written didn’t hold my interest at all. It’s an incredible story that needs to be told in a different way.

    1. I really, really wanted to abandon this book…there were so many other must-reads on my desk screaming to be read and I really felt like I was wasting precious hours on this book. In the end I skimmed and read to the end but I wonder how much obligation we are under to finish when we are part of a book club…

      1. That’s a good question. Maybe you guys could come up with some guidelines? It makes it less fun to be part of a book club if you’re not enjoying the book(s). I hope you like the next one better!

  6. Emily, this book was a struggle for me to read. Like you, I felt the writing was focused too much on animals (and I’m quite an animal lover). I felt Ackerman’s usage of WWII facts and stories seemed to only serve as filler for the times when she could not fit a particular animal story in. I was greatly disappointed. I read and heard interviews Ackerman gave after I finished the book because I wanted to understand why she wrote this book in this style. It is very clear through her interviews that she wanted to write this story in praise of Antonina’s strength and courage in a terrible time. However, I don’t think she related much at all about Antonina outside of her relationship to animals because Ackerman at heart is a naturalist and her writing tends towards the floral and fauna and whimsical. It was a missed opportunity on Ackerman’s part to really tell a distinctive story about WWII, but I cannot say it was all terrible because I did learn a few things about the Polish underground resistance. We take what we can get from reading, I suppose, and one or two new facts is better than nothing.

    1. Absolutely! We should take what we can get. I think what I got from this one is a lot of interesting information about muskrats! I appreciate your insight on the author, her background, and your own efforts to understand her.

  7. Reading all of your reviews now, I completely see the “whimsical,” “New Agey,” “naturalist” bent of the narrative. When I was reading it, it didn’t bother me at all. Though not strictly necessary, I thought learning about animals (even muskrats!) was really interesting. I think I would’ve been more upset with those tangents if it had been fiction. In fact, I was more upset that sometimes it sounded like Ackerman was trying to make it fiction.

  8. Haha, I read your comment to Lynn and thought it was interesting…I am also not an animal person and wondered if that impacted my enjoyment of the story. I think the disjointedness and multitude of facts made this a frustrating read for me though ultimately I am happy that I learned about Jan and Antonina and the role of Poland in the war.

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