Michelangelo would be baffled by today’s separation of art and science, whether he hid anatomical drawings in The Sistine Chapel or not. Ivory Frame, however, finds a way to unite art and science in creating her “Dictionary of Animal Languages.” A narrative that jumps from the present to the past, Heidi Sopinka’s The Dictionary of Animal Languages tells the story of an artist/biologist loosely based on the life of Leonora Carrington. Like Carrington, Ivory falls deeply in love with an intense and talented artist in interwar France where modern and surreal art was blossoming. Her love was intense and all-consuming.

We begin, though, in the present, when Ivory is 90 years old and has just been informed she has a granddaughter, a tricky feat since she had no children. Through jumping back and forth we learn how such an improbable event could be possible, we learn how Ivory found her life’s work, creating a Dictionary of Animal Languages, and what she lost and gained in pursuit of her obsession.

One of the true things of life is that which is called dedication at forty and devotion at sixty is dotty at ninety. Even Ivory sometimes doubts herself. Her single-minded dedication to creating her dictionary has meant many sacrifices in her life, but she feels an urgency to capture the languages before they are extinguished. Extinction is always on her mind.

I loved this book. The writing is poetic and powerful. There is such beauty in the prose I might call it luminous if I had not made the pledge to never use that cliche. You can google it. However, the language is full of imagery and energy, active and fresh. Sopinka has her own grammar, using sentence fragments in moments of urgency.

This is a book that should not be read in a rush. It’s a book that should be savored slowly, with pauses to think about the ideas. Each chapter is named after an animal and it adds a bit of delight to look for the reason. Much of the book takes place in cold and frozen places, also speaking to my personal polar obsession.

This story is heartbreaking in many ways, but if you ask Ivory, I’m certain she would say the heartache is worth it. It also asks terrible questions such as whether we can love too much, if love can hold us back and make us lose ourselves. Can women reach their potential if they love too deeply. What makes life worthwhile? All these and many other themes are tackled in this marvelous book.

I received a copy of The Dictionary of Animal Languages from the publisher through a LibraryThing drawing.

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