Devotion/Dani Shapiro: Reflections

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What could a book called Devotion be about?  Devotion to whom, or to what?  Devotion because of...?, or instead of...?  Devotion as religion, or as a way of life?

In the quiet, so-elegant prose of Dani Shapiro, devotion is another word for quest.  It is the journey to know—and to reckon with not knowing—how one lives in a world of risks, in a body aging, in the vessel of uncertainty.  Having reached the middle-middle of her life, having left the city for the country, having raised a little boy who beat the odds of a rare and dangerous disorder, having achieved much as both a novelist and a memoirist (and also a screenwriter), Dani Shaprio wakes from her sleep full of worries and lists.  Her jaw quakes.  Her thoughts slide.  She gets caught up in the stuff of life and then—and then—she worries.

Shapiro was the child of a deeply religious household, and she doesn't know what she believes.  She is the mother of a boy asking questions, simple, impossible questions about God and heaven and sin.  She should know something, shouldn't she?  She should have something definitive to offer.  But what, in the end, is rock solid, sure?  What bolsters us, protects us, from vicissitudes and chance?

"It wasn't so much that I was in search of answers," Shapiro writes.  "In fact, I was wary of the whole idea of answers.  I wanted to climb all the way inside the questions and see what was there."  Revisiting the orthodoxy of her Jewish past, taking time for meditation and retreats, seeking more and more from her long-practice of yoga, Shapiro makes herself vulnerable to possibilities.  She yields, more and more, to present time, the unrepeatable eachness of each moment.

Sentence by sentence, this is a beautiful book—considered and (the word kept occurring, so I'll use it) pure.  Structurally, it is magnificent, scenes abutting scenes, time cutting into time, small threads woven into a greater tapestry.  One wants to know Shapiro, as one reads this book—one wants to talk about all that can't be puzzled through, all the losses one can't stop, all the hurt that will go on and on, no matter how "smart" we are about our living.  We never really do have more than one another, and that is what Shapiro comes to.  Shapiro's book, itself, is a hand outstretched, an open door, a place to dwell.   


Jeannine Atkins said...

I just finished reading this, so it was wonderful to read your reflections. I, too, liked the layering of scenes, the searching and reaching, but not necessarily for answers.

And the allusion to her mind some nights as being like a bunch of post-its. Oh yes. I've been there.

Lindsey said...

This is so, so beautiful ... Devotion changed my life when I read it last winter and I've written often about it. I love your line about what can protect and bolster us from vicissitudes and chance? Perhaps, nothing? What a gorgeous review. Thank you. xox

Lilian Nattel said...

I've put this book on my list, Beth.

Florinda said...

I just finished reading this myself (posted about it yesterday). It really spoke to me, and it sounds like it did to you too - I'm glad.

Booksnyc said...

This book blew me away and I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. Living in the vessel of uncertainty is the perfect way to describe what the author seeks to do.

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