Family History – Dani Shapiro

I finished this novel a week ago and I am still thinking about it.

This is one of those stories that can really unsettle you if you have anything in common with characters. In this case, Rachel and Ned and their teenage daughter Kate.

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes. With this novel Shapiro takes on a particular kind of disaster that few people have the courage to deal with directly. There are many novels out there about how families cope (or don’t) when kids get cancer, or drive drunk and cause unending misery, or get involved with drugs. These are things things parents hear about every day. These are the things we prepare ourselves for, if only in the vaguest way. We imagine the police at the door, the phone call in the middle of the night. What we’d do. Who to call.

There’s no big mystery about what will happen next if your kid is diagnosed with lymphoma. The details, sure. But you know there will be doctors and hospitals and tests and agony. A kid arrested for shoplifting or drunk driving, same thing: you have an idea of what will happen, who to turn to, that lawyers and courts will be involved. The impact it will all have on your child’s future.

Shapiro tells a disaster story of another kind.

Your teenager goes off to camp one summer and comes back a different person. Somebody you don’t recognize. Somebody who frightens you. And not in the usual acting-out teenager way. We all recognize that out of our own pasts. It’s painful and hard to deal with, but it’s familiar.

Ned and Rachel pick Kate up when she comes home from camp and they know immediately that there’s something seriously wrong. It’s a long time before they can put words to what they’re observing. These are words to be avoided at all costs, when you’re thinking about your own kid. I would venture that for most parents, psychosis is far more frightening than leukemia.

Kate’s condition — which is never spelled out clearly — works like a sledge hammer on the family. As it must. Even the strongest bond between partners is tested by a disaster of this magnitude. Add to this already difficult situation an unexpected pregnancy and new baby, and the potential for heartbreak skyrockets.

I’m not going to say anything more about the plot. If this family survives, if they find a way to stay together, if Kate gets the help she needs — you’ll have to read the book. It’s worth reading, but it’s possibly more than some people could bear.