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 While Kate was already showing signs of being in trouble – she was already withdrawn, sullen and non-communicative – the accident is a bit of a watershed, as the family truly disintegrates afterward.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…?).