Friday, July 17, 2009

Family History by Dani Shapiro

On the back of this book is a blurb from the Detroit Free Press: "One of those books most readers will finish in one sitting... because it is so intense you can't take a break. In gripping, moving prose, Shapiro reminds us of any family's essential fragility, but also of the tenacious strength of love."

Thank you Detroit Free Press for capturing the essence of this book so concisely! The art of crafting a blurb is beyond me; I am too wordy.

As for reading the book in one sitting, I did. (But  I tend to read most books in one sitting). Having read this book shortly after In A Country of Mothers,  I felt even more connected to the psychological drama and the focus on family dysfunction.  I am beginning to believe that any book with a family at its center cannot be a disappointment, although I secretly know this is not the case.

This book sucker punches the reader. It is harrowing and sad. The young daughter the parents know and love disappears--and is replaced with someone who confounds them and dramatically alters their family in irrevocable ways.  There is a sense in this book that the parents did everything right, and yet their child has turned into a very messed up teenager.  No one is to blame of course.  But it is hard to "watch" such loving individuals suffer through such family crises.    The reader wonders: why is this happening?  What explains this change for the worse?  And will she come out of this situation? Will Rachel and Ned and Kate's lives ever be stitched together?

I love the way Shapiro uses language. She has a wonderful ability to create a full scene, one that invites the reader to truly visualize the settings of her novels.  She is also adept at building  a story, beginning in the present, moving backwards and then forwards. The story alternates between the present and past in a way that allows the reader to swim around and pick up information slowly, only providing them with the full story shortly before the crescendo of the novel.  Shapiro is also skilled at her use of perspective. We see the world through the eyes of Rachel Jensen. We feel her despair and confusion, her longing for the past.  And we keep our fingers crossed that things will turn around. There is a real immediacy to the novel.  The powerful emotions Jensen experiences move beyond the page.

This book shows how quickly a family can unravel, and yet how long it takes to try to resolve the issues that led to this unraveling. In some ways it is the cautionary tale of a parent's worst nightmare.  And it is also a beautifully penned story, a full fleshed story with vivid secondary characters and a real sense of the complications, mundanity and drama of real life.

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