"I had been waking up in a sweat nearly every night, my heart pounding. I paced my house, worried about...well, worried about everything... Because I had to make his death mean something... I had reached the middle of my life and knew less than I ever had before."
These thoughts, expressed early in the book, seem to summarize the drift of the story as Dani Shapiro tries to gather the tangled existential threads of her life and arrange them in some sort of order. She has the trappings of a normal, fulfilling life—a stable marriage to a devoted, supportive husband, adequate income, a thriving son, health and beauty, a comfortable home. But all is not well. She struggles to reconcile the orthdox Jewish faith she was raised in with her current Buddhist leanings. She struggles to transcend the terror of health problems her son outgrew after infancy. She grapples with the decline of her abusive mother. And above all, she seeks reconciliation with the memory of her father and to find meaning in his death.
There is something here for nearly any woman to relate to. I understood Dani's feeling of never quite fitting in, of always being on the outside looking in. I related to her constant striving for progress and evidence that she was becoming more aware, more present and aligned. I especially appreciated the insights she shared from experiences at the Kripalu Institute where she attended many workshops and studied with spiritual masters, and her unending search for a synagogue community where she could feel at home.
Although every page of the book was a delight to read, it did pose a challenge. The thread of Dani's ongoing meditation and yoga practice provide continuity throughout the book, along with the subtheme of her "monkey mind" that refused to focus. Her monkey mind must have influenced the book's organization. With 102 chapters in only 241 pages, this book may hold the record for shortest average chapter length in a memoir. Each chapter is tightly focused on a single thought or event. Some are fully developed scenes with scintillating dialogue and exquisite descriptions. Others are short, undeveloped thought snippets, perhaps lifted directly from her journal. A few are expository essay-type material. All jump around the calendar in a seemingly random fashion with no narrative connection. I often struggled to piece together a mental timeline for myself. It's not clear whether she left it windblown and random on purpose, or simply ran out of time and energy to finish organizing it in a more cohesive fashion.
In the final analysis, her randomness does reflect the organic way we become acquainted with people in real life as conversation jumps around and evolves. It was worth the effort of working the puzzle, which seemed to consist entirely of inner pieces, with no defining boundaries. Time will tell whether her informal approach to organizing memories sets a new standard for memoirs of the future.
Dani Shapiro's most recent books include Black and White (Knopf, 2007), Family History (Knopf, 2003) and the best-selling memoir Slow Motion. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Bookforum, Oprah, Ploughshares, among others, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. She is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure and guest editor of Best New American Voices 2010. Her new memoir, Devotion, was published in February, 2010. She lives with her husband and son in Litchfield County, Connecticut. Visit her website.
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