by Alison Buckholtz
There aren’t many genuine literary thrillers out there, especially among today’s memoirs. Sure, there are narrative twists that lead to unexpected epiphanies—but fewer and fewer books whose plot and pacing compel me to page ahead of my place in the text, panting for answers.
Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love does that by telling a remarkable story with the empathy and eloquence that characterize Shapiro’s previous nine books. That number includes at least three memoirs. So it’s reasonable to ask a simple question: What could be left to say?
Inheritance adds significantly to Shapiro’s body of work while plugging into some of our culture’s most pressing concerns–identity, technology, and medical ethics, among others. Although her story is unique to her, it offers a way of thinking about our changing, uncertain times.
It’s a hard book to discuss without spoiling the surprises that make it such an exciting read, and I’ll try not to give too much away. Inheritance opens as Shapiro, at age 54, receives DNA test results that are dramatically inconsistent with her understanding of who she is. The new facts of her life are so impossible to believe that she pursues new test results from several additional companies, and the quest for the truth is her only anchor in unfamiliar, terrifying territory.
“I latched onto facts,” she writes. “I ran through these facts as I tried to fall asleep each night, as if recounting them might help me make more sense of things. But what I was really doing was unspooling a narrative fifty-four years long.”
Shapiro is finally forced to understand that her genetic history speaks its own “inconvenient truth.” This conflicts fundamentally with her personal identity, shaped by generations of relatives who were Orthodox Jews–many of whom held prominent roles in the community and were influential authorities in their time. The portraits of these communal leaders—grandfathers and grandmothers, aunts and uncles–line the walls of her home and dictate (almost literally) her self-image, her relationships, and the traditions she’s passing down to her son.
So when her genetic analysis offers a different life story to tell, it upends her world. It seemed to Shapiro “as if I had been swept into someone’s novel—someone’s melodramatic novel—and I was a playing a character rather than living my life.”
While still in the fog of disbelief, she commits to suss out the what, where, and how of who she is. In the process, she also unearths the why. Gradually, answers to questions that she had never before been able to articulate power Inheritance forward as it heads in directions that explore the history of reproductive medicine, the legacy of secrecy, and the power of denial.
As Shapiro seeks to redefine family in a way that’s relevant and honest, some of her lifelong relationships unravel. But other family ties weave new patterns, and these –braided with truth alongside sentiment—give her the strength to keep narrating an unknowable future.
About the Author:
Dani Shapiro is the author of four memoirs, Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Dani’s new memoir, Inheritance, was just published by Knopf.
Her books span diverse subjects from her tumultuous upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish community and the tragic death of her father to her explorations of spirituality and the nature of our deepest relationships.
She contributes regularly to the New York Times Book Review and is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler. A portion of Slow Motion was broadcast on This American Life.
About the Reviewer:
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.
She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.