Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Devotion, by Dani Shapiro

I was so excited to see a new title out by Dani Shapiro. Years ago I read both her novel, "Family History," and her memoir, "Slow Motion." In the latter, this one-time model and actress (her stage name was Dani York) tells of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, and her subsequent fall from grace as a young adult. There was an illicit sexual relationship with one of her father's business associates, alcohol and drugs, and the typical falling apart one sees in conjunction with these activities. And then, amidst all this, her parents suffer grave injuries in a car accident. Her father dies, and Shapiro pulls herself together to help nurse her mother -- a difficult person even when well -- back to health.

In "Devotion," we see Dani in a new stage of life, married with a baby. Shapiro is no longer observant, and like many Jews today who were raised in observant households, no longer has any spiritual life. Suddenly, her baby boy contracts a rare, potentially deadly seizure disorder and the turmoil forces Dani to revisit the difficult times of her younger life and its attendant anxiety.

It's refreshing to read a story like this, one that puts on paper a scenario that I don't think is all that uncommon. As we move through life and reach certain milestones, the challenges of the tough times of our younger days naturally resurface. I've seen this happen to friends. It has happened in my own life. In Shapiro's story, her distress pushes her to seek help, and we read about her search as she dabbles in new-age, eastern-flavored approaches (Why does it seem as though all the Buddhists are Jews? Can't we Jews access inner peace through Judaism? What's missing here?), yoga, and meditation. To be fair, she also investigates her own Jewish background, trying to find the meaning it held for her parents and what that means to her.

Shapiro's inner-struggle, and the story of how she works her way through it, makes for a thought provoking read. I related to it as a Jew who also searches to find meaning in her heritage, and I related to it as someone who, like Shapiro, has stumbled while traveling through the personal challenges that come with the roles of wife and mother.

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