Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro doesn’t know who she is. And that’s rather remarkable as she’s written five memoirs (and an equal number of novels).

Let me back up. Shapiro is the daughter of a man who comes from a long line of devout Jews. Her paternal grandfather was a pillar of modern Orthodoxy. Except, as she found out as the result of a cotton swab DNA test, done as something of a lark, the man she always believed to be her biological father isn’t really. She was conceived when her father’s sperm was mixed with that of an anonymous donor. And that shocking revelation calls into question her entire identity and is the basis of her latest book, Inheritance.

Shapiro_inheritanceAs a blonde, blue-eyed child, Shapiro always felt herself to be an outsider, in both appearance and something else mysterious and ineffable. She attended Jewish day school, spoke perfect Hebrew, and adhered to the family faith. An indelible childhood memory is when a family friend (who would later turn out to be Jared Kushner’s grandmother) tells the young Dani: “We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis.”

That feeling of non-belonging persists throughout her life, following her through early adulthood as chronicled in her first memoir Slow Motion. She describes herself as a self-destructive, hard-drinking coke-snorting college dropout, living with her best friend’s stepfather. The wakeup call comes when her parents are critically injured in a car crash and the responsibility of caring for them falls to her.

As Shapiro pulls herself together, loses and re-finds her faith, marries (with all the complexities that institution demands, described in her memoir Hourglass), and suffers though her infant son’s life-threatening illness, she continues to chronicle her life.

So it is we find her, in her fifties, hit with the sudden and jolting news about her paternity. She and her husband Michael (who in this book appears nothing less than an always supportive, ideal gem of a husband … where’d she find him?) do some quick and skillful detective work and learn the identity of her biological father. She tracks him down looking for answers, also persistently seeking out relatives and friends of the family to learn what they knew of her paternity and to share the pain and anguish of her discovery. She consults rabbis for answers from Jewish tradition.

The bulk of the book is about the meaning of her discovery. And she takes it hard: all of the assumptions she’d made about her ancestry, who she is, are no longer true. The very photographs lining the walls of her home don’t seem to belong to her anymore. Or she doesn’t belong to them.

She questions how and why her parents sought out the fertility clinic that resulted in her conception and mostly why they kept it a secret from everyone, even, it seems, deceiving themselves to a degree. She also delves into the emotional and moral implications of anonymous sperm donation (specifically sperm mixing) and resulting issues of privacy.

Dani Shapiro is a deep, skillful writer and her introspective journey carried me a long way, Until it became too much. If she invests so much in biology, what are we to make of her mother, who she repeatedly describes as narcissistic and borderline? Shared DNA doesn’t necessarily mean connection.

Despite his depression and suffering at the hands of her selfish and demanding mother, the father who raised her is beloved and loving; he gives her so much during her life as well as a rich legacy she passes on to her son. I couldn’t help but feel compassion for him on many levels. I also felt for the newly-found bio dad, a man who donated sperm over 50 years earlier as a medical student, now a grandfather with a big and loving family. His world and that of his wife, who didn’t even know him at the time of the donation, is rocked when he’s contacted by Shapiro.

This is a very personal book and I recognize the very form of memoir demands a healthy dose of ego. Your response to it will depend on your appetite for navel-gazing.

Ah Emma Bovary, I remember you well. My book club (32 years old and still going strong) is reading the gorgeous Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary.

Davis_bovary_BKI first read MB in my twenties, when I had more sympathy for poor Emma, a to-me-at-that-time sensitive artistic soul trapped in marriage to a clumsy boor of a country doctor. (Shallow or what?) In my ’40s, I found Emma spoiled and contemptible, having little pity for her. And here I am now, having had my Medicare birthday, feeling pity and compassion for both Emma and Charles and having a better appreciation for the emptiness at the root of Emma’s discontent and better appreciating Flaubert’s scorn for the bourgeoisie. If the true test of a classic is a novel that withstands the test of time, this one’s the real McCoy.

On my night table: Diana Athill’s memoir Somewhere Towards the End and Valerie Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. Stay tuned.