Book Club February 2021 – Inheritance, Dani Shapiro
Before focusing on memoirs, Shapiro (Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, 2017, etc.) drew from her family life in her fiction. In her latest, she delves into an origin story that puts everything she previously believed and wrote about herself in fresh perspective.
The author’s relationship with her mother was difficult. “My single best defense had always been that I was my father’s daughter,” she writes. “I was more my father’s daughter. I had somehow convinced myself that I was only my father’s daughter.” Eventually, she learned that she wasn’t her father’s daughter at all, at least not in the way that she had initially understood. Through DNA testing to which she had only submitted because her husband had done so, Shapiro discovered that she shares none of hers with her father’s side of the family and that the sperm that impregnated her mother had come from someone else. But who? The first half of the book trudges through a bit too much day-by-day detail, as the author becomes convinced that there’s no way these results could have been mistaken. It is after she discovers who her real father is, or at least the sperm donor, that the narrative deepens and enriches our deeper understanding of paternity, genetics, and what were then called “test tube tots.” Sperm donors had been guaranteed anonymity, and the man she contacted was initially resistant to upset the balance of his family dynamic because of his participation in the procedure decades earlier. Equally upsetting Shapiro was the issue of what her parents had believed, separately or together, about her parentage. Had they spent their lives as a family deceiving her, or had they also been deceived? Then there was the doctor whom they had consulted when they were having fertility issues, “an outlaw” whose credentials were shaky but whose results were impressive.
For all the trauma that the discovery put her through, Shapiro recognizes that what she had experienced was “a great story” – one that has inspired her best book.