DEVOTION by Dani Shapiro

Book Quote:

“We were complicated by our history, by the religion of our ancestors. There was beauty and wisdom and even solace in that. I no longer felt that I had to embrace it all—nor did I feel that I had to run away. I could take the bits and pieces that made sense to me, and incorporate them into the larger patchwork of our lives.'”

Book Review:

Review by Eleanor Bukoswky (JAN 26, 2010)

In Devotion, Dani Shapiro describes her quest to come to terms with the traditional Judaism of her father (which she abandoned), her late mother’s legacy of bitterness and anger, her fear that her only son might be damaged by his early battle with infantile spasms (a seizure disorder), and her inability to relax and enjoy the present, unfettered by neurotic worrying. She was deeply traumatized at the age of twenty-three when her father, who was only sixty-four, collapsed and died while driving his car.

Since she and her husband, Michael, are successful writers, Shapiro does not spend her days hurrying to a nine-to-five job and then rushing home to make dinner for her family. She is a novelist and homemaker who has the luxury of time, during which she can attend yoga classes, practice meditation, and explore her thoughts and emotions in depth. There is a New Age feel to Shapiro’s activities. She signs up for something called “Master Level Energy Work;” a woman named Sandra acts as a conduit between Dani and her dead father. Shapiro also dabbles in Reform Judaism (at one point, she dons her father’s prayer shawl and phylacteries), and consults advisors who impart wisdom that she tries to incorporate into her daily life.

Dani and her family live in rural Connecticut, and she admits that her son, Jacob, is barely aware of his Jewish identity. The author, who is in her forties, wrote this book to describe her existential crisis: “Something was very wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that I felt terribly anxious and unsteady. Doomed.” Although she claims that she was not clinically depressed, she says, “It seemed that there had to be more than this hodgepodge of the everyday.” Shapiro suffered from free-floating anxiety and dread, in spite of the fact that she had a loving husband, a healthy son, and a fulfilling career as a novelist and teacher.

Although Shapiro seems to be a thoughtful and goodhearted individual, Devotion comes across as a disjointed, repetitious, and self-indulgent work, in which Shapiro recounts her slow journey towards a more meaningful existence. She admits that she cherry-picked (“the smorgasbord approach”), choosing a little bit of this and a little bit of that to form a workable belief system. While in Venice, she purchased a mezuzah, prayed (to whom?) when the mood struck her, spent three days at a yoga and meditation center called Kripalu, another three days at the Garrison Institute (a former monastery), where she was guided by Sylvia Boorstein, a Buddhist.

Shapiro has some distinguished relatives. Her father’s younger sister, Shirley, was married for sixty-six years to Moses Feuerstein, who served as president of the Orthodox Union. His brother, Aaron Feuerstein, is the legendary owner of Malden Mills in Massachusetts. When his factory burned down in 1995, Mr. Feuerstein used his insurance money to rebuild the business, and in the interim and paid his employees’ salaries, with full benefits, for six months. It seems that Ms. Shapiro could have drawn inspiration from these two lives—those of Moses and Aaron Feuerstein. Doing acts of loving kindness for others and perpetuating a long-standing tradition of ethics and good works can imbue anyone’s years on earth with significance. Too much focus on oneself can create a void that is difficult, if not impossible, to fill. Ms. Boorstein said, “Everyone is struggling…..You have to go forward. And we all die in the end. So how to deal with it?” The answer is, of course, different for everyone. Some enter psychotherapy, others become deeply religious, and there are those who concentrate on their profession and/or families. Devotion implies that looking inward, with the help of mentors, may be one way to reach inner peace.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper (January 26, 2010)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
AMAZON PAGE: Devotion: A Memoir
EXTRAS: BookPage interview with Dani Shapiro
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Black and White



January 26, 2010 · Judi Clark · 3 Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Non-fiction

3 Responses

  1. brody - January 26, 2010

    Eleanor, I really appreciate your review. I’ve been a long-time fan of Dani Shapiro’s but don’t think I would have liked this book. Your review was insightful and honest. Too often, reviewers don’t speak to the negative aspects of the books we review and that does readers an injustice. ( I am guilty of that myself.) By learning about the New Age quality of her ‘religious experience’ and the self-indulgence Ms. Shapiro displays in this memoir, I have decided to skip this one. Bonnie

  2. dbrandis - January 29, 2010

    Dear Readers and especially Bonnie,

    Do not let one reviewer turn you away from this incredible book that explores the hard questions in life which we all like to ignore. Dani’s book explores the concept of being devoted and to what…with purity, depth and genuine grace. The book has made me tear and laugh — with occasionally my eyes averting the page as I pause before delving into a thought or question long unanswered.

    I hope you enjoy Devotion. I am.

  3. booklover10 - February 1, 2010

    Thank you to brody and dbrandis for your comments.

    I agree with dbrandis that no one should reject a book based on one review. As you all know, intelligent people can and do disagree. Even reviewers that you admire can find fault with a book that you enjoy. That being said, I stand by what I said in my review. “Devotion” did not move me. It is difficult to sympathize with a woman who has a loving husband, a healthy child, and a fulfilling career, yet claims that her life is empty. I agree that we should all seek meaning in our lives. However, in my humble opinion, the best remedy for emptiness and even mild depression is to seek out people who are less fortunate than you and donate time and energy to help them. Service to others may go a long way towards filling up that inner void.

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