Inheritance by Dani Shapiro was the subject of our recent discussion by our ongoing book discussion group here at the bookstore. This is Shapiro’s fourth memoir which most of the group found surprising since Shapiro is only in her early 50’s. However, she has experienced some heartbreaking events in her life including the death of her parents in an automobile accident and the near loss of their son when he was an infant. Shapiro is certainly introspective as well as being an excellent writer, so I imagine that these memoirs have been a way to process important times in her life.
Inheritance chronicles Shapiro’s experience with information she discovers after she sends a DNA sample to Ancestry.com. She expected nothing new beyond what she already knew about herself, primarily that she was Ashkenazi Jew. Dani had always loved the traditions of this sect, and she loved her father deeply although she had a somewhat vexed relationship with her mother. What she learned through Ancestry.com was that her father was not her biological father and that her mother had undergone artificial insemination. Through a connection she discovers from a first cousin whom she didn’t know she had, Shapiro is able to track down her birth father. If her life was turned upside down, imagine the response of a man who had been a sperm donor as a young man, supposedly anonymously, and finds himself in the unenviable position of being contacted by the living, breathing product of being a donor. I’m sure he never imagined children as he and others donated sperm. Who could have foreseen fifty years ago that the technology would be available to find the biological parent? It is a tribute to the generosity of the man and his family who agreed to meet Shapiro, and they were able to create a family of sorts.
If I had to sum up the response of the discussion group in one word, that word would be “whiny.” While everyone sympathized with Shapiro having her world turned upside down, there were many instances where she just whined. Given the fact that she had had a loving father in her life, she now has a loving husband and a beautiful son, not to mention a successful career as an author, it was difficult for everyone to feel totally sympathetic. But perhaps, the way Shapiro presented the memoir was her attempt to reach the hearts of her readers. Perhaps, simply presenting the “facts” would have not sufficed.
In addition to her memoirs, Shapiro has also written novels and writes for a number of publications. She has also taught at Columbia, New York University, the New School and Wesleyan University.
Inheritance is published in paperback by Anchor Books and retails for $16.95.