(Dani J. Shapiro)
PERSONAL: Married Michael Maren (a screenwriter); children: one son. Education: Sarah Lawrence College, B.A., 1987, M.F.A., 1989. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Home—Litchfield County, CT. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Knopf Publicity, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY, 10019.
Playing with Fire, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.
Fugitive Blue, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1993.
Picturing the Wreck, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996.
Family History, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Slow Motion: A True Story (memoir), Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
Contributor to The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women (anthology), edited by Wendy Martin, Beacon Press. Also contributor to periodicals, including New York Times Magazine, Granta, Story, Elle, and Ploughshares.
SIDELIGHTS: Dani Shapiro has been applauded by critics for bridging the gap between serious and popular fiction, or what Booklist contributor Donna Seaman has called "fluff and literature." Her novels portray upper-middle-class characters in glitzy surroundings, burdened with psychological and familial traumas of an often melodramatic stripe; but critics have acknowledged that they also explore these characters and situations with skill and sensitivity.
Shapiro's first novel, 1990's Playing with Fire, is the story of two roommates at prestigious Smith College. Lucy is the daughter of prominent Orthodox Jews, Carolyn the daughter of rich gentiles. Carolyn has the habit of mysteriously vanishing for days on end, eventually returning, tanned and satisfied, from a vacation with an unnamed lover. The two young women eventually begin a sexual relationship, but then Carolyn coaxes Lucy in the direction of Carolyn's stepfather, Ben. However, when Ben and Lucy become lovers, Carolyn is angry, and it is finally revealed that Carolyn and her stepfather had been lovers since Carolyn was fourteen. Embroiled in this psychodrama, Lucy comes closer to finding herself when she must deal with her own father's sudden death.
While finding the relationship between Carolyn and Ben too obvious to cause suspense in the novel, a Kirkus Reviews critic called Playing with Fire an "intense, sophisticatedly erotic loss-of-innocence novel" that is admirable for its "subtlety." For Seaman, the novel is "the perfect beach book," a dramatic "real story" involving Lucy's coming to terms with her heritage. Library Journal contributor Heidi Schwartz felt that Playing with Fire successfully avoids melodrama to become "a moving, heartfelt tale of family, friendship, love, and maturity" in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
In her second novel, Fugitive Blue, Shapiro follows two young New Jersey natives, Josie and Billy, from their childhood as friends in an affluent suburb, through later life, when their love suffers not only from having been stepsiblings, but from the fact that Billy is gay. Along the way, Josie must also sort out the psychological baggage left over from her artist mother's desertion of her family and the resulting pattern of abandonment in Josie's relations with men. Booklist reviewer Seaman assessed Fugitive Blue as "a strong, cohesive, and firmly dramatic work that entertains both viscerally and cerebrally." The critic further praised Shapiro for creating a novel that, while spanning the characters' lives, remains as gripping at the end as it is at the beginning: "Shapiro sees through the veneer of glamour and success," Seaman announced. "This is a sophisticated and deeply felt story of fugitive love and the crucial instinct for survival and forgiveness." A Publishers Weekly reviewer also praised the book and called the "dark and lushly told" novel "resonant and complex."
Picturing the Wreck examines the life—and afterlife—of a man who destroys a promising career in one foolish action. Solomon Grossman, a rising young psychoanalyst during the 1960s and the only survivor of his Holocaust-shattered family, is accused of sexually molesting a patient who is the daughter of a Nazi. His career in ruins, he is abandoned by his wife, who takes their infant son, Daniel, with her. Thirty years later, Grossman by chance sees his son on television as the lead investigator of a plane wreck. Making his first and last contact with his grown son, Grossman tells Daniel their history; after Grossman's death, his spirit keeps watch over Daniel. Seaman, writing again in Booklist, noted that Shapiro writes "with great sensitivity about fractured familial relationships," but regretted the improbable nature of the story line. She added, however: "Amazingly enough, Shapiro does transcend the schmaltizness of her plot to celebrate our ability to embrace even the most painful destiny with dignity." Library Journal contributor Harold Augenbraum, accepting the story's premise more wholeheartedly, hailed Shapiro for achieving "the difficult feat of producing a book that is appealing, kind, and compassionate without being maudlin."
Shapiro took a break from writing fiction with her next book, Slow Motion: A True Story. Published in 1998 and written to resemble a novel, this memoir recounts the author's early adulthood, during which she dropped out of college after becoming the mistress of her friend's stepfather, a New York City lawyer. Abandoning the strictness of her upbringing in a family of Orthodox Jews, Shapiro embarked on a life of modeling, acting, drugs, and alcohol as the kept mistress of "her repulsive sugar-daddy," according to New York Now writer Anna Mundow. Shapiro reveals that she was saved from her decadent lifestyle upon receiving news that her parents had been seriously injured in a car crash. Though her father died as a result of his injuries shortly after the crash, Shapiro was able to reconcile with her mother while helping her recover. Mundow commented that "her father's deterioration and tearful hospital reunion with his wife is surely the book's most haunting episode."
Shapiro returned to fiction with Family History. Rachel and Ned Jensen leave New York City for life in the suburbs of Massachusetts when Rachel unexpectedly becomes pregnant. Ned takes a job as a teacher, while Rachel works part time and raises their loving daughter, Kate. The Jensens seem to be the perfect all-American family, but a noticeable shift occurs when Rachel learns she is once again pregnant. That summer, thirteen-year-old Kate returns from camp with a pierced navel and a surly attitude. Though her parents initially label Kate's bad behavior a teenage phase, she quickly starts to spiral out of control. After baby brother Joshua is born, Kate's recklessness and pain cause irreversible damage to the family. A critic for Publishers Weekly found that the novel "has the deeply felt emotional fidelity of a true story." In further praise for the book, New York Times reviewer Emily White called Family History "a poised, absorbing book."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Shapiro, Dani, Slow Motion: A True Story, Random House (New York, NY), 1998.
Booklist, May 15, 1990, Donna Seaman, review of Playing with Fire, p. 1780; December 15, 1992, Donna Seaman, review of Fugitive Blue, p. 715; January 1 & 15, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Picturing the Wreck, p. 792; January 1, 2003, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Family History, p. 809.
Cosmopolitan, January, 1993, Louise Bernikow, review of Fugitive Blue, p. 16.
Entertainment Weekly, January 19, 1996, Margot Mifflin, review of Picturing the Wreck, p. 49.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1990, review of Playing with Fire, p. 607; January 1, 2003, review of Family History, pp. 21-22.
Kliatt, November, 2003, Nancy C. Chaplin, review of Family History, p. 47; November, 2004, Nola Theiss, review of Family History, p. 20.
Library Journal, June 1, 1990, Heidi Schwartz, review of Playing with Fire, p. 186; December, 1992, Donna L. Schulman, review of Fugitive Blue, p. 189; December, 1995, Harold Augenbraum, review of Picturing the Wreck, p. 160; February 1, 2003, Maureen Neville, review of Family History, p. 119.
New York Now, August 2, 1998, Anna Mundow, review of Slow Motion.
New York Times, April 27, 2003, Emily White, "Terrible Teen," review of Family History, p. 20.
New York Times Book Review, March 24, 1996, Maggie Garb, review of Picturing the Wreck, p. 19.
People, July 9, 1990, Joanne Kaufman, review of Playing with Fire, pp. 18-19; January 18, 1993, Joanne Kaufmann, review of Fugitive Blue, pp. 29-30; January 8, 1996, Louisa Ermelinio, review of Picturing the Wreck, p. 34.
Publishers Weekly, April 20, 1990, Sybil Steinberg, review of Playing with Fire, p. 58; January 13, 1992, review of Playing with Fire, p. 52; November 23, 1992, review of Fugitive Blue, p. 54; October 23, 1995, review of Picturing the Wreck, pp. 59-60; February 3, 2003, review of Family History, p. 53.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 24, 1993, review of Fugitive Blue, p. 5.
BookPage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (December 8, 2005), Amy Scribner, "The Unraveling of an Idyllic Life."
Creative Writing Center Web site, http://www.ce.columbia.edu/writing/ (September, 1998), biographical information on Dani Shapiro.
Dani Shapiro Home Page, http://www.danishapiro.com (December 8, 2005).
New School Web site, http://www.nsu.newschool.edu/ (December 8, 2005), "Faculty: Dani Shapiro".
Random House Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (December 8, 2005), Jenny Lee, review of Family History and "Interview with Dani Shapiro."