Book a Week: Devotion, by Dani Shapiro

This is a book I’ve been wanting to read for quite a long time. I loved Shapiro’s first memoir, Slow Motion, and I also love her blog, Moments of Being.

Devotion chronicles a spiritual journey, but not the kind I was expecting. There’s nothing artificial about her exploration of the Judaism she grew up with or the other disciplines she turns to–including buddhism, yoga, and even psychology. This is not immersion journalism. This is one woman’s personal search for real meaning in her life, and the very personal nature of her search is ultimately what makes the book universal.

Shapiro grew up with a father who was an Orthodox Jew and a mother who described herself as an atheist. Imagine the household. In utter confusion, Shapiro turned away from religion as an adult. But then she was left feeling unmoored. How many of us feel the same way?

I love how she describes herself as being complicated with Judaism. She rarely attended services and certainly didn’t practice the elaborate prayer rituals at home that her father had during her childhood. Yet she still described herself as Jewish. Her ancestors were Jewish. She commemorated the Jewish holidays. Though I no longer describe myself as Catholic, I understand what she means by “complicated” with it. I still put up a Christmas tree and color Easter eggs with my kids. There’s an aspect of religion that is family tradition, and this is the aspect I’ve kept alive for my own children. It would be impossible for me to ever completely abandon the Catholicism I was raised with.

But like Shapiro, I’ve been searching beyond the faith of my childhood for something that makes sense in my adult life. I’m not able to simply accept the religion of my youth without question, yet I’m also not fulfilled without a sense of deeper meaning in my life besides the endless pursuit of possessions and bragging rights. Devotion inspires me to find my own center, to keep working toward true balance in my life, and to consider that a u-turn on my current road may be required.

As a writer, I’m stimulated by Shapiro’s precise narrative, so structured yet always in touch with the core of emotion in every situation. I would describe the format of this book as a series of essays, most of which are fairly brief. At times it even seemed more like one long prose poem in 102 stanzas. It’s the kind of book I’d love to one day have the skill to write myself.

Now I’m anxious to read her novels. Dani Shapiro is becoming one my favorite authors.

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