In Family History
, Dani Shapiro has written such a nail biter of a plot that it's easy to overlook just how good--and how literary--a novel this really is. Narrator Rachel Jenson is a housewife and art restorer married to Ned, a one-time painter. They live with their two children, 13-year-old Kate and 2-year-old Josh, in the small New England town where Ned grew up. In an elegant series of flashbacks, we learn of the emotional devastation teenage Kate has wrought. She was a perfect child growing up, but once Josh came along, her dark thoughts and tragic actions nearly destroy her family. As secret after secret is revealed, Shapiro gets perfectly Rachel's horror of daily life: how can you chat with the other moms at preschool when your world is falling apart? But what makes Family History
a fine novel is its utter freedom from stereotype. Kate is bad, but she's never the bad seed; Ned's a failure, but he's not a total wash; Rachel's a narrator mired in tragedy, but she's a wry, slightly unreliable narrator mired in tragedy. Shapiro knows just how much hope to give her characters. In the end, their redemption is so slight that we actually believe in it. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
It's every parent's nightmare: you do your best, yet your child goes bad. With candor and tenderness, Shapiro (Playing with Fire) explores how a beloved, well-brought-up child can destroy a family. Rachel and Ned Jensen moved from a bohemian life in Greenwich Village to the Massachusetts town where Ned grew up when Rachel found herself pregnant with Kate. She hoped for a stellar career in art restoration; Ned was sure he'd find inspiration for his paintings in tiny Hawthorne. By the time Kate is a teenager, neither has occurred, but they're a happy family: Ned teaches at the Hawthorne Academy, Rachel works part-time; Kate is a beautiful, cheerful, popular 13-year-old. Then Rachel has another baby, Joshua, at age 39. Jealousy of her new brother, or some darker disturbance, turns Kate's ordinary teenage mood swings and shoplifting escapades into more venomous rebellion. After an accident occurs when Josh is in Kate's care, she spirals out of control, and makes wild accusations that do terrible damage to the Jensens' lives. The gripping narrative has the deeply felt emotional fidelity of a true story; it's a book some readers will finish in one sitting. The physicality of Rachel's maternal love-the need of a mother to touch her child, to feel it breathe-is almost palpable. Shapiro writes luminously about marital love and contented domestic routines, and with brutal insight about the corrosive misery of guilt and shame. Crafted with assurance, this novel holds a mirror to contemporary life.
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