REVIEW: Family History by Dani Shapiro

Format:  Trade Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction
ISBN:  1400032113
Published:  December 2007
Setting:  Massachusetts

Rating:  4 of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Rachel Jensen is perfectly happy: in love with her husband, devoted to their daughter Kate, gratified by her work restoring art. And finally, she’s pregnant again. But as Rachel discovers, perfection can unravel in an instant. The summer she is thirteen, Kate returns from camp sullen, angry, and withdrawn. Everyone assures Rachel it’s typical adolescent angst. But then Kate has a terrifying accident with her infant brother, and the ensuing guilt brings forth a dreadful lie—one that ruptures their family, perhaps irrevocably. Family History is a mesmerizing journey through the mysteries of adolescent pain and family crisis.

My Thoughts:

This was definitely a compelling read, and I found the entire family situation to be terribly sad.  What was most interesting, however, is how oblivious everyone seemed to be to signs that something bad was wrong with Kate.  From the outset, I found it unsettling that no one seemed more disturbed over her very sudden and very obvious behavior change after camp.  My immediate thought, of course, was that something terrible, personal and devasting had happened to her at camp, but that avenue was hardly even given a thought.  I thought Shapiro was shortsighted in introducing Kate’s mental illness in such a way, and then failing to follow through on such an obvious avenue…first.  I wonder how many of her readers had the same initial reaction…that something bad happened, and because she was teetering on the brink of a full-blown psychotic episode, this would have certainly tipped the scales.

Once it was evident that Kate had serious issues, I had such a difficult time sympathizing with Rachel, who seemed ridiculously resistant to pursuing real, effective treatment for her.  Further, why did it take incidents beyond the accident with her infant brother to convince Rachel of the need for intervention?  Kate’s mental & emotional unraveling was occurring right in front of her face, in a way that was putting her baby at risk, and she seemed almost paralyzed until the lie make sit clear that inpatient treatment is immediately necessary.  Rachel frustrated me profoundly because of her lethargy and sort of helpless inability to cope.

Frankly, though, her husband frustrated me as well.  To have a happy marriage, to witness a daughter descend into mental illness, and then to find himself incapable of allowing his wife a moment of self-doubt when faced with the impossible situation of choosing to believe either her husband or her daughter – a moment before fully supporting him and fully comprehending that her daughter had lied and needed professional help – made me furious.  He chose to leave, to move out, to virtually abandon his wife and baby.  Sure, the situation was unbelievably difficult.  His daughter told an almost unforgivable lie.  His wife almost completely broke apart under the stress, and he flaked.  I know, I know…I’m unsympathetic.

Overall, I suppose it was Shapiro that frustrated me.  She’s a good writer who wrote a good story about terribly flawed people who allowed their weaknesses to take over.  Thankfully, though, she saw them through those months to a reconciliation that emerged not only from love, but from finally & clearly understanding their daughter’s illness and either other’s needs.

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