The Gifts of INHERITANCE: Dani Shapiro and Me
I first fell in love with Dani’s writing after reading her memoir, SLOW MOTION: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy, in 1998. I had just graduated from Yale and had moved from my hometown of New York to Los Angeles. I was a bit lost, trying to find my place in the world.
Dani’s open, honest story about her own life when she was 23 — a car wreck, her reliance on alcohol and drugs, her inappropriate relationship, her Jewish upbringing, trying to find her way — spoke to me so deeply that I’ve never forgotten it. It was the first time that I truly felt like a book had helped me make sense of my own life. It made me feel less alone. It gave me direction. I still have the original copy on my bookshelf at home.
I’ve followed Dani and her writing ever since. Whenever I’d spot a new novel or memoir of hers at a bookstore, I would gasp with excitement and grab it off the shelf, plunging into it right away, no matter what else I had going on. DEVOTION. FAMILY HISTORY. BLACK AND WHITE.
When HOURGLASS: Time, Memory, Marriage came out in April 2017, a memoir about her own marriage, both Dani and I had long since left those struggling 20-year-old versions of ourselves behind. She wrote beautifully about her 20+ years of marriage, raising her son (who just went to college), her life in Connecticut and what it all meant to her.
I read her life update from my apartment in New York. I had become a writer too (although far, far less accomplished than her), with several books (one published, many not) and many articles under my belt. I was fresh into my 40s, divorced, about to get remarried, four kids of my own. Marriage was very much on my mind.
Dani’s insights into her relationship, her role as a mother, her past, spoke to me then as much as her coming-of-age story had, back in the 1990s. I dragged my soon-to-be husband to not one, but three of her HOURGLASS book events. The Corner Bookstore in New York. Diesel Bookstore in Los Angeles. A Literary Affairs breakfast at the Bel Air Hotel, where I finally got up the nerve to introduce myself and tell her what a fan I’d been for so many years.
“I’m not trying to be a stalker, but I’m your biggest fan,” I admitted nervously, as she smiled generously at me. She was wearing a really cool pair of ripped jeans with a loose, flow-y shirt, great boots, her blond locks artfully yet effortlessly framing her face, her kind, knowing eyes smiling at me from behind her glasses.
“Thank you,” she said kindly.
I left the breakfast feeling absolutely elated that I’d finally spoken to this hero of mine.
Soon after meeting Dani, I started a podcast called, “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” in which I interview authors about their work so that busy people, like moms, can listen in. Dani Shapiro was #1 on my wish-list of guests.
As luck would have it, an editor friend told me she was bringing Dani to the lunch I was co-chairing to benefit the New York Public Library. I sat Dani next to me and was beyond nervous and excited to get to know her in person. It was more nerve-wracking to me to make small-talk with her than to speak in front of the 300+ people there. But once we started talking, it was like reconnecting with an old friend. We laughed. We commiserated. We talked about writing. Marriage. Religion. We bonded. She was even better in person! By the end of lunch, she had enthusiastically agreed to come on my podcast.
A couple weeks later, we recorded the episode in my home “studio,” chatting into twin microphones at my desk, her melodious voice dancing off the bookshelves surrounding us, steam from our coffee cups floating up. SLOW MOTION looked out at us from its perch on the shelf.
And then we became friends.
Now, we go out to dinner with our husbands. We email. We meet for coffee. She encouraged me to do more salon-style events for my podcast, so I came up with the idea of hosting a holiday book fair and “live podcast” event. 30 of the authors from my podcast attended. Dani offered to participate in a panel discussion I moderated from my living room, after which she read the first two chapters of her latest book.
The best book ever. Full stop.
Dani had told me the story on which her memoir was based, the aftermath of a simple Ancestry.com DNA test and how it had completely disrupted her entire life, her sense of identity. We’d been having breakfast at Sarabeth’s on Madison Avenue when she started telling it to me.
Despite the hubbub of the busy restaurant, the waiters jostling coffee cups, the people squeezing by to get into the packed tables, the clinking silverware, it felt like there was a spotlight on our table, like we were on stage and everything else had faded away, including sound. Including time. Her low, slow voice, her kind eyes, her brilliant prose. I sat on the edge of my seat, my eggs getting cold, uneaten.
“And then what?!”
I couldn’t stop exclaiming, my hand over my mouth, shocked.
Time ticked by and she had to rush off, but she hadn’t gotten to the end of her story. I hopped into her cab and drove with her all the way to midtown so she could tell me the ending. It was the best cab ride of my life.
When Dani shared an advance copy of INHERITANCE with me after the book fair, I wasn’t sure reading the memoir could top her one-on-one recounting of the experience.
But it did.
I read the book out loud to my husband so we could experience it at the same time. I breezed through many chapters a night, my husband laying in bed, arms crossed on his chest listening, as I sat propped up by European square pillows beside him, reading by lamplight.
At the end of literally every chapter, I would look over at him and he would whistle or say, “Whoa,” or “A-maz-ing!” because the end of every chapter was truly that: amazing. We binged-read it, like we watched “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” two seasons in a week.
The coolest part was that as I read it, I would email Dani.
“… Kyle and I went to sleep last night with goosebumps after the ‘thoughtsus’ typo incident. You are SO GOOD.”
She would write back, “Thank you re: INHERITANCE. ‘Thoughtus’ is one of my favorite moments.”
INHERITANCE is brilliantly-written, thought-provoking, binge-able, and truly brings the meaning of life, family, religion and identity into clear focus. It’s more than a book. It’s an experience. A soul-stirring, edge-of-your-seat, heart-pounding, exclaim-out-loud story written in the most elegant, searing prose imaginable. It is a work of art.
The best book ever.
By my favorite author whose words and stories have forged a path for me for the past 20 years and whose friendship I now treasure above all.
(Note: Photo credits for the wedding and book fair to Julie Skarratt.)