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Family HistoryReview - Family History
A Novel
by Dani Shapiro
Anchor, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jan 20th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 3)

A novel in which a thirteen-year-old daughter might be schizophrenic and a toddler might have brain damage is certainly serious.  Judging from the book jacket, critics hold Dani Shapiro in high esteem and believe she is well matched to the task of this serious business, and this is mystifying.  Shapiro's breezy melodramatic style does make her book Family History a quick read, but it would be more suited to a tale of a Bridget Jones-type character worrying about her weight, obsessing about movie stars and trying to find a boyfriend. 

Rachel and Ned Jensen used to live in New York City as a graduate student and struggling artist, but when she got pregnant they moved up to Massachusetts to live near his parents with money from them.  Their daughter Kate is born and has an ideal childhood until she goes to summer camp at the age of 13.  That summer Rachel and Ned enjoy the freedom of having the house to themselves and accidentally conceive another child.  But Kate returns from camp with a belly button ring and a surly attitude.  She will hardly talk to her parents and she has some behavior problems such as stealing.  Then there is an accident with her baby brother Josh and she feels very guilty, but rather than toning down her behavior, she makes a shocking accusation against her father.  This leads to her father moving out and losing his job at the local private academy.  On the recommendation of her psychiatrist, Rachel and Ned put Kate in a school for troubled children, the best on the east coast.  They have to remortgage their home in order to pay the fees because it is so expensive.  When Kate starts behaving aggressively and  self-destructively, and the doctors there tell her parents that she may have a serious mental illness. 

One of the first indications in the book that this novel seriously neglects its responsibilities is in the scene near the start of the novel in the fourth of twelve chapters.  The main events are not narrated consecutively, but rather it starts with the phone call Rachel gets from the school to say that there has been an incident and that she and Ned should make the two-hour drive for a meeting.  The plot goes back in time to when Rachel and Ned met, their early marriage, and the difficulties they had with her narcissistic mother Phyllis.  Getting back to the initial plot, when Rachel and Ned get to the school, they are taken into a room where Kate is already standing looking out of the window.  She turns round, dramatically, to reveal her swollen face. Ned wants to immediately take her from the school because his daughter has been beaten up.  Then the doctor tells Ned and Rachel that Kate did this to herself, after beating up another girl. 

While I don't have any experience with such therapeutic communities, it is massively implausible to me that any competent therapist, let alone an expert at the best such school in the east, would bring parents into a room with their daughter with her face black and blue without giving them some advance warning.  What's more, the whole scene that follows, in which Dr Esposito convinces the parents to sign Kate in to a more stringent, more expensive program, is so brief as to be seem to be written for an hour long TV drama than anything like a real decision made by loving parents.  Real parents do research and see what their options are.  They get second opinions.  They talk to each other for a couple of hours.  As described by Shapiro, Ned and Rachel seem shallow and annoying, but clearly that is not the author's intention.  She wants to make her readers feel great sympathy for her two heroes and their plight, yet she fails. 

The Jensens lead a privileged life.  Their best friends are rich New Yorkers, and Rachel's mother lives in a nice apartment overlooking Central Park.  Ned's parents lend them the money so that the two of them can buy a house when they need to.  Rachel rebels against the local social norms by insisting to keeping her own career as an art restorer rather than being a full-time mother.  Maybe a portion of the population will identify with this couple, but probably a rather small portion.  Of course, the couple's situation is very difficult, but Shapiro doesn't give their experience the consideration it deserves.  At one point, Ned is described as crying "hot tears," which sounds like a phrase from a romance novel.  When near the end of the novel, Rachel and Ned want to bring Kate back home, but their only justification is that Rachel feels like it would be a better decision.  It is yet another event where a change in the plot is given very weak justification.  The whole story seems like a sketch rather than showing real characters living a real situation. 

In short, while Family History deals with important issues, it trivializes them and turns her characters into bad actors.  While Rachel at some points confesses that she wishes that other mothers would realize that terrible things can happen to ordinary people, the story in the end leads the reader to expect that everything will turn out fine.  The suggestions that Kate has a major mental illness and that Josh has brain damage seem more like plot devices to induce anxiety in their parents.  There's no honest look at adolescent mental illness or cognitive deficits here.  Shapiro never stares real misfortune in the face.  While Shapiro clearly has skills in fashioning a readable novel, this novel lacks moral seriousness. 

I should mention that Family History has won high praise from The New York Times Book Review, NPR's Fresh Air, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle among others.  Amazon.com reader-reviewers lavish praise on the book.   Clearly other people have seen virtues in this book that I was not able to see.  I can see the attraction of a gripping read about a family crisis, and so it is not hard to understand why many people find the novel enjoyable, but nevertheless my opinion remains that Shapiro's breezy melodramatic style fails to do justice to the topic of mental illness in the family. 

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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