FAMILY HISTORY by Dani Shapiro

Shapiro I just finished Dani Shapiro's Family History. I have to say, for starters, that I've had very little time to read since coming back from vacation, and I read it in short spurts here and there, maybe 15 pages at a time. Not my favorite way to read books, but I do think it may have colored my opinion of the book, perhaps for the better.

Family History is about Rachel and Ned Jensen, a couple living outside Boston with a very troubled adolescent daughter. The book is told partially through flashbacks, and a bit into the book we learn that Kate, the daughter, accidentally dropped her infant brother Josh on his head when he was only a few months old. While Kate was already showing signs of being in trouble – she was already withdrawn, sullen and non-communicative – the accident is a bit of a watershed, as the family truly disintegrates afterward. Family History is told through Rachel's eyes, and chronicles her attempts to keep her marriage together, nurture her son (who may be mentally impaired from the accident) and figure out how to help her unhappy and destructive daughter.

The good – Family History is immensely readable. Shapiro is a precise and compelling writer. She is especially gifted at describing emotions and family dynamics. I found this book very difficult to put down, which made the limited chances I had to read it all the more frustrating. I wanted nothing more over the last week or so to have an uninterrupted hour to just sit and get lost in it, which hasn't been the case with every book I've read recently.

The bad – it's also relentlessly depressing! Watching this family fall apart is very painful. As I read, I was struck by the randomness of life, by the fact that lives can change in a heartbeat. The Jensens' awful predicament can happen to anyone. And as someone with young daughters, I shuddered to think of going through what Rachel did – watch her adolescent daughter slip further and further away, despite her best efforts to stop it. I think my inability to read more than a few pages at a time actually made me like this book more than I would have had I read it straight through, as it kept me from just whirling down into the despairing mess of the Jensens' life.

Also, I think there were some loose ends in the book. Kate's condition – depression? schizophrenia? – is never really identified. Her actions are somewhat explained on the last page of the book… and then the book ends. No real resolution. Given the precision with which the story had been told up to that point, the end was disappointing.

On balance, though, I liked this book a lot and would recommend it. Please weigh in if you've read it (Nancy West…?).


  • June 11, 2008 - 7:09 pm | Permalink

    I read this book a few years back so my memory is a little sketchy, but I do recall feeling disappointed with the family as a whole. The situation in and of itself was very depressing but the handling of the daughter disturbed me. I felt as if her family had given up on her and that she had no real support.
    It was not one of my faves and left me very sad afterward and I can usually deal with depressing subject matter.

  • June 12, 2008 - 9:05 am | Permalink

    Hi there. Dani Shapiro here! I was procrastinating this morning–because the paperback of my most recent novel Black & White just came out so I’m keeping track of my books online–and came across this. I like your blog, Gayle. And was interested in your comments about Family History. It is indeed a disturbing book–it was disturbing to write! If you’d ever like me to answer questions I’d be happy to.

  • Nancy West
    June 12, 2008 - 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Hi Gayle and All,
    How strange to think that the author is reading this blog! That makes me want to refrain from being critical — I’m not out to hurt anyone’s feelings. It was a well-told narrative; I just didn’t find it all that memorable. Gayle, I mentioned earlier (probably in a repetitive way) that I simply think “Breaking Her Fall” is a better book on the same highly compelling theme: random events that threaten family implosion. How would you compare the two?
    I did find a lot of the characters and situations interesting, like the upwardly mobile NYC friends and their night out on the town.
    Now for my one quibble, which I’d be interested to hear both the author AND other readers weigh in on, except I’m not sure how to say it without generating a plot spoiler. Let me try it this way: At one point, Kate tells a therapist something. The next day, the whole town knows and the alleged perpetrator loses his job. The book sort of implies (or maybe one of the characters actually says — it’s been a couple of years since I read this book) “Oh, that’s what small-town New England is like; gossip gets around fast”; but this is more like a suggestion that the therapist violated client confidentiality. And even in small-town New England, I think that’s really unlikely in this day and age. It simply didn’t ring true to me that a girl could tell her therapist something and the next day the whole town would know. (I live in a very small New England town myself, and I get defensive when our milieu is made to look backwoods in ways that we simply aren’t. Professional confidentiality laws apply everywhere.)
    Anyway, it’s a very good novel. I’m glad I read it and I’m glad to be discussing it now with other readers…and the author!

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