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Family History Hardcover – April 1, 2003

90 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (April 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375415475
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375415470
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (90 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,687,173 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Dani Shapiro's most recent books include the novels Black & White and Family History and the bestselling memoir Slow Motion. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Vogue, Ploughshares, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications. She lives with her husband and son in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on May 2, 2003
Format: Hardcover
How could a family and a marriage fall apart after so many happy years? Rachel Jensen finds out in Dani Shapiro's novel FAMILY HISTORY, the story of her family and how they deal with a child that shows signs of mental illness. The book opens with Rachel sitting in her house alone, watching home movies taken by her husband Ned. She stares at the movie screen and sees herself and her family, yet she does not recognize them. The happy smiles and laughter that she is watching is from a lifetime ago. She still has not adjusted to her new life without her husband or her daughter Kate. The smiles and laughter are only memories. The only remnant of her family is her young son Joshua, who lives with her in this house. He is far too young to really understand how bad things are for his parents and he does not know that he has a sister named Kate. For most of Joshua's life, Kate has not lived with the family.
Rachel goes downstairs to check her phone messages and listens to one that asks her to go to Stone Mountain in regards to Kate. Whatever the news is, Rachel is dreading to hear it. There could be no good news if they are calling her about Kate.
How did things get to this point? The bulk of the story is told in flashbacks. As the story line slowly progresses and the appointment at Stone Mountain approaches, the reader learns about Ned and Rachel's courtship and their romantic dreams of being artists before their children were even a glimmer in their eyes. The two of them lived in New York and, while trying to make their artistic dreams come true, Rachel learns she is pregnant. With the help of Ned's parents, who also happen to be very wealthy, they buy a fixer-upper near his parents' home in Massachusetts.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Ratmammy VINE VOICE on April 29, 2003
Format: Hardcover
FAMILY HISTORY by Dani Shapiro
FAMILY HISTORY is a story of a woman's struggle to keep her family together and herself sane after a series of events threatens to hurt her marriage and tear it apart.
Rachel Jensen at one point in her life was able to say that she had the perfect life. She was not financially rich by any means, but she could vouch that her family was a happy one, and her marriage was solid and full of love and laughter. There wasn't anything she felt she lacked monetarily, and this was important to her, since throughout their marriage they had to prove to their parents that they could indeed make it financially on the type of dreams they were shooting for. She knew she was the envy of others, and would never have thought that this world that she was familiar with was about to come crashing down around her.
The book opens to a scene with Rachel sitting alone in her bedroom, wallowing in self-pity as she watches old home movies of her husband and her daughter Kate laughing and smiling. It is a movie of happier times, before the baby was born, and before their daughter Kate started to change right before their eyes.
The reader knows immediately that there is something terribly wrong, as she is sitting in her bedroom alone in the dark. Her husband no longer lives with her, and their daughter has not lived with them in quite a while. All that is left in her life is baby Josh, and he is far too young to comprehend that anything is wrong with their family.

The destructive events that occur that destroy the harmony of the family are centered on Kate, who by this time is a young teenager going through a lot of extreme emotional and behavioral changes.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Lisa Jane on January 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
When I picked up 'Family History' at the local library, I groaned inwardly at such a title and thought it might be boring.
Then I started reading it at 11pm last night in bed and at 6pm the next day, I'm almost finished. I've never read a Dani Shapiro novel before, but found this book brilliant because it's true and believeable. As a teenager with chronic depression, I can feel for both Rachel and her daughter Kate.
When Rachel and Ned, her husband, pick up Kate from summer camp, they find Kate to have changed, and what they see ends up becoming the tip of the ice-berg. It's difficult for Kate to tell her parents how she feels, and within my depression I have felt much the same way. There are good and bad times throughout it, and though Kate obviously has a far worse mental illness, crossing the border into schizophrenia, I can feel her pain.
I suspect Rachel also suffers from depression, but it is less obvious to her, and I am able to feel her pain as well, as in my darker days I think everyone's lives are far better than mine (though I've got a good life, wonderful family and friends.)
For these reasons, I've thoroughly enjoyed 'Family History' and am rather upset to be almost at its end.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Gail Cooke HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 5, 2003
Format: Hardcover
They were young when they met in a New York City café. Rachel is an aspiring art restorer, in the middle of graduate studies at New York University. Ned Jensen is an artist who dreams of a grand showing.
This chance meeting is to unalterably change their lives. Rachel says there was nothing dramatic about that moment. It was simply that "There was something between us. There you are. The thought came to me, bizarre and unbidden. I simply knew I had just met the man I was going to spend my life with."
Career plans are set aside when Rachel finds herself pregnant, and the couple decide to marry. Such a thought is unconscionable to Rachel's mother. After all, "Nice Jewish girls weren't supposed to marry artists. My choices were doctor, lawyer, banker."
This is not the first rift between mother and daughter. Mother is widowed, selfish, a product of Bergdorf Goodman and Elizabeth Arden. Rachel tends toward the bohemian and, as an only child, relishes the thought of becoming part of a larger family, Ned's family.
Following their wedding the pair settle in Ned's hometown of Hawthorne, Massachusetts, where his parents, successful realtors, have made it possible for them to buy a comfortable older home. With a barn behind the house in which he can paint, Ned signs on as an instructor at Hawthorne Academy.
And then Kate is born. She is a golden child. She flourishes and grows - a joy to all. She earns high grades in her school subjects and is elected captain of athletic teams. They are a happy family and Ned is a popular teacher, dreams of becoming an artist seemingly forgotten. His early ambition is not mentioned any more "It had faded away slowly, the way a painting itself fades when left too long in the sun.
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