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.