I love Dani Shapiro’s work. That’s not a surprise. I reviewed Devotion here, Still Writing here, and Hourglass here. I’m incredibly fortunate to have taken classes with Dani and to call her my first and most important teacher. Her writing moves me and makes me think, as well as inspires me to be better, more aware, more thoughtful, more engaged.
I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of her new memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love and it took my breath away. Run, don’t walk. Order it now. I’ll be giving to to many friends when it comes out early next year. Inheritance tells the story of Dani’s discovery, in early 2016, that the father that she’d long adored, who died many years ago, was not her biological father (this is on the back of the book, so I’m not giving anything away).
The book starts with this revelation and unfolds as she learns more about her parents’ motivations and about her true biological background. The story feels like a detective story, with a kind of breathless pacing that is for me new in Dani’s work.
The book centers around questions of identity. Most saliently: what makes us who we are? What combination of genetics, experience, loyalty, and love makes up our soul? How do we wrestle with choices people made long ago that impact us deeply? Particularly when the choosers are not here to talk to anymore?
Dani’s family – both the family she grew up with (though her parents are not living, there are other relatives who come into this story: cousins and half-siblings and an aunt) and the biological family she newly meets in midlife – mostly meet her revelations with candor and warmth, for which she is grateful.
Dani’s father was already a towering figure in her life, and he features in much of her writing before Inheritance. As she says at the end of the book, “there has rare been an event of importance in my life when I have not searched for my father.” His legacy of Orthodox Judaism forms is the through line of Devotion, and, arguably, of Dani’s life altogether. This discovery about his role in her biological makeup is an earthquake for Dani, but, ultimately, it does not change the love they shared and the enormous influence he had on her. Of course this is book hit me – another daughter hugely impacted by her father, in a moment of deep grief and awareness of that power – particularly right now.
The book unpacks complicated questions of agency and secrets, of what we share and why, as Dani thinks through who she is in the light of this new information. Like in many of her books, I closed it with a deep sigh of relief and identification. The thing I love most about Dani’s work is how beautifully, delicately, and honestly she describes what it’s like to live the questions, in Rilke’s words. She manages to take experience that is deeply, uniquely personal and use it to comment on universal themes of humanhood. Dani’s done this in all of her books, in my opinion, and Inheritance is no different.
She lives the questions, without forcing an answer, and in that willingness inspires me profoundly. There may not be perfect, clean answers – in the case of Inheritance, Dani will never truly know what her parents knew and why they chose this path – but that does not need to stand in the way of a rich, meaningful, and honest life. The last lines of the book capture this beautifully as she stands before her biological family, thinking of the father of her childhood:
… I silently call to him, a Hebrew word – hineni. Here I am. Hineni, uttered only eight times in the entire Torah, is less a statement of personal geography than an expression of presence and pure attentiveness….I say it to my father, again and again. Hineni. I am here. All of me.