Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Book Review - Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

Title: Devotion: A Memoir
Author: Dani Shapiro
ISBN: 978-0061628351
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Date Published: February 8, 2011
Pages: 272
Genre: Memoir; Non-Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Summary: In her mid-forties and settled into the responsibilities and routines of adulthood, Dani Shapiro found herself with more questions than answers. Was this all life was—a hodgepodge of errands, dinner dates, e-mails, meetings, to-do lists? What did it all mean?
Having grown up in a deeply religious and traditional family, Shapiro had no personal sense of faith, despite repeated attempts to create a connection to something greater. Feeling as if she was plunging headlong into what Carl Jung termed "the afternoon of life," she wrestled with self-doubt and a searing disquietude that would awaken her in the middle of the night. Set adrift by loss—her father's early death; the life-threatening illness of her infant son; her troubled relationship with her mother—she had become edgy and uncertain. At the heart of this anxiety, she realized, was a challenge: What
did she believe? Spurred on by the big questions her young son began to raise,
Shapiro embarked
upon a surprisingly joyful quest to find meaning in a constantly changing world. The result is Devotion: a literary excavation to the core of a life.

In this spiritual detective story, Shapiro explores the varieties of experience she has pursued—from the rituals of her black hat Orthodox Jewish relatives to yoga shalas and meditation retreats. A reckoning of the choices she has made and the knowledge she has gained, Devotion is the story of a woman whose search for meaning ultimately leads her home. Her journey is at once poignant and funny, intensely personal—and completely universal.

My Thoughts: Devotion is Dani Shapiro's search for meaning in life. She wants to find a way to calm her internal strife and come to terms with her agnosticism in order to answer her young son's theological and philosophical questions. I thought Devotion was a captivating, heart-warming, powerful and beautifully written story of Ms. Shapiro's journey to figure out how to deal with life.

Ms. Shapiro grew up in an extremely religious Jewish home which she rebelled against and didn't follow with her own family. This, combined with a contentious relationship with her mother, left Ms. Shapiro unable to reconcile her past, spending too much time dwelling on it. But her problems with the past weren't the only thing she's struggling with. She spends an inordinate amount of time focused on the future trying to "control everything in the universe" and pointlessly worrying over that which she cannot control in an effort to keep her family safe. (Zorged is the Yiddish word she discovers defines her angst). As a result, Ms. Shapiro finds that as she approaches the middle of her life, she feels anxious, fearful and intensely lonely.

The author recognizes that her fears and worries are becoming the basis of her existence. Ms. Shapiro is successful at conveying her fears when she writes about her son Jacob’s health. Despite the fact that Jacob was very ill with a rare disorder as a baby, he’s been healthy for more than six years, yet Ms. Shapiro incessantly worries. Devotion takes on an added level of depth, importance and immediacy when Ms. Shapiro realizes her fears and anxiety may be having a negative impact on Jacob. It turns out he seems to be living a fear based life as well. For example, Jacob doesn’t learn to ride about at the same age as most other children because he’s afraid of falling.

The author takes on a very interesting journey as she looks for a way to quell her fears, discover who she is and reconcile her past. We join Ms. Shapiro as she visits an “energy worker”, an osteopath, and Kripalu, a yoga and meditation center, as well as studies the Torah and Eastern philosophy all with an eye towards opening her mind and ridding herself of the fear and despondency she’s been living with. Ms. Shapiro clearly explains that she isn’t necessarily looking for answers so much as what informs the questions. Part of what makes this book so entertaining, so successful and so worth reading isn’t just the details of her experiences but that she tells her story using humor, self-deprecation and doesn’t shy away from honesty and emotion. But Ms. Shapiro keeps her narrative light enough that she never crosses over into sentimentality or schmaltz. Many times this is a short-coming in memoirs. Kudos to Ms. Shapiro for avoiding that trap.

I read some reviews that criticized the book for not always being linear. I found that though this is true, I don’t think it detracted from the book In my opinion, Ms. Shapiro intentionally wrote Devotion this way to emphasize her angst and her sense of disjointedness. Rather than a shortcoming, this was an effective literary tool.

I don’t want to give away the results of Ms. Shapiro’s journey, but what’s important is to bear in mind that getting there is half the fun. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is now or has ever found themselves feeling unmoored by life in much the same way as Ms. Shapiro. I think the questions she asks about life’s meaning are universal. This makes the book one from which everyone can benefit.

Be sure to visit Dani Shapiro's website and blog.

I received a copy of Devotion from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.


  1. This sounds really good! I think we've all had periods in our lives when we reflect on things like this.

  2. I just posted my review of this book today as well, and like you, I loved it!

    I totally agree that her writing style adds to the reading experience. It really worked in my opinion.

  3. I will review this one tomorrow. I really loved it also. I didn't mind the non-linear style at all. In fact, I found that it made the memoir more compelling. The book deeply resonated with me.

  4. This is by far the most in-depth and thoughtful review of this book that I have read so far, and I really enjoyed it. If you are looking for a book that is similar in tone, emotion, and subject to this one, I would definitely recommend Lit by Mary Carr to you. It deals with a lot of the same issues, and is a really good read.

  5. Great review Amy. I don't read many memoirs but this one sounds worth reading.

  6. This sounds like a great book for people of all ages (and both sexes, for that matter) to read. We are all, so often, struggling just like Shapiro and can't always find the answers in the places we've been raised to expect to find them.

  7. "The author recognizes that her fears and worries are becoming the basis of her existence." I think this could (sadly) be said of a lot of people in today's world.

    I'm so glad you enjoyed this book. Thanks for being on the tour!

    PS. I hope you are doing well after the loss of your kitties ... that is such a hard thing to deal with. *hugs*