Dani Shapiro: Time, Memory… Marriage?

I have just finished Dani Shapiro’s book Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, and I am frustrated. Not because the book is a bad read and I’ve wasted my time – no, I’m frustrated that it has been labelled a book which is predominately about Dani’s marriage.

Even Dani herself has mentioned in interviews that the book is about her marriage, sharing the story of when she told her husband, “I think I want to write about us.” I’m going to disagree with the memoirist herself and say – this is not a book about marriage. This is a book about “becoming”.

In this book, Dani shows us who she is, who she used to be, and why perhaps she’s still that same person. She shares her fears and her frustrations: wanting a life of stability, wanting her husband to at least acknowledge that he sometimes puts that stability at risk, but at the same time wanting him to not acknowledge it at all, since she needs him to be her source of safety in a world which is ultimately unsafe.

Shapiro book

Me, acting natural with the book

And aren’t we all like that? Full of contradictions, if we look closely and honestly at ourselves?

This book isn’t about marriage. It’s Dani Shapiro inviting you into her home, telling you to take a comfy seat and having a conversation. Events involving her husband are discussed in parts, but only because these events form part of the narrative of who she is. The book also touches on the pace of life, the choices, the never-quite-getting-it-rightness and the unstoppable change.

I interviewed a writer once, who is now a good friend, who I asked “How do you describe yourself, beyond your career choice?” She said, “Relationships and narrative. That’s who I am.” I think that’s what Dani is saying, too. But not just relationships with her husband and her son, mainly the relationship with herself.

In this book, her relationships are props for us to witness her unfolding.

At first, I felt uncomfortable by the lack of chapters. It is written like one long essay, but it’s not quite chronological. It is scattered with short thoughts, quotes from other writers, diary entries and memories. To me it seems as though Dani is being more genuine writing this way, by writing the same way she thinks – zigging and zagging from one thought bubble to another.

But even when she takes me back in time, then brings me to the present again, I never feel distracted. I still feel as though I’m always moving forwards, in a way, still watching Dani’s unfolding, her “becoming.”

“Somewhere, a clock ticks. Sand pours through the hourglass. I am no longer interested in the stories, but rather, what is underneath the stories: the soft, pulsing thing that is true. Why now? What is this insistence? All of me – the whole crowd – wants to know.” – Dani Shapiro.

By the end of the book, I feel as though I went to Dani Shapiro’s house for dinner, we had some wines. The conversation flowed so well that I stayed much longer than I originally anticipated, and I drive home wondering if I overstayed my welcome. I’m relieved when I remember she did all the talking – so she mustn’t have minded me hanging around.

In fact, at times I wanted her to show a little more, to go a bit further back in time. But in this book, she is mainly focusing on the middle chapter of her “becoming” – it’s the “holy shit, I am a grown-up, this is it” part of life which she is sharing. She doesn’t word it that way, though. She has a lovely, honest, down-to-earth energy.

And “lovely” is a word I see in a lot of the reviews for this book. I think it’s accurate, it is lovely. What could be more lovely than someone laying out all the jumbled pieces of their soul, trusting that the reader understands it all and won’t misuse it.

There are ups and downs but no major earth shattering events in this story. Nothing all that much out of the ordinary, even with the bouts of death and disease. But its ordinariness is what makes it so good.

The book isn’t sending a message of, “look, my marriage is absolutely fascinating, and my life is too.” Rather, “These are the pieces of me. This is how I got here. These are the characters around me which help to tell my story. This is how my heart works.”

I loved the book in all it’s beautiful disjointedness – but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a book about marriage. To call it a book about marriage is taking something expansive, beautiful, yet strangely simple and making it small.


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