Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Devotion by Dani Shapiro

This book, a memoir about finding faith and hope in a tragic world, absolutely exceeded my expectations. It profoundly moved me, leading me to ask questions about the strength of my own faith, what faith does for me, and the nature of God.

One thing I often worry about before reading memoirs like these is that I'll come across harsh criticism of organized religion. I'm a Mormon, and my church (officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) seems, to most people, very strict and all-encompassing. (And I love it that way.) A lot of writers about faith these days seem to scoff at the idea of strict obedience and are determined to find their own way, picking out bits and pieces of different religions according to what makes sense to them. Shapiro, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family, actually has a lot of respect for this kind of religion with a lot of rites, symbols, and rules. Although she's become mostly assimilated, she still tries to incorporate Judaism into her life, and I loved that. I was fascinated to read about Shapiro's relationship with Judaism and her determination to keep it in her family, even though she had mostly abandoned the beliefs about God that she had been taught growing up.

Another thing I sometimes find disappointing about memoirs is that the authors seem to be declaring that they've had a huge epiphany and have totally changed their lives, but it usually turns out that it's more of a marketing ploy and they haven't really changed. But I appreciated Shapiro's memoir because she didn't declare a gargantuan epiphany, but she still went through a journey that led to some form of change. She didn't go out on a reckless journey to "find herself"; in fact, when she had the opportunity to take an all-expenses-paid trip to India to study, she declined, realizing that any grand epiphanies found "out there" would not translate well into her real life. Everything that she discovered about faith was at home, surrounded by her family and friends, living regular life. This book was simply about the little things that happen in life; the things that cause us to stumble in our faith, and the things that cause us to wonder whether someone higher isn't pulling strings in our behalf. Through it all, Shapiro tries to come to an understanding. Not just by having a single experience, but by spending time every day meditating, studying, and pondering. In my religion, we are taught that this is the only way to real, lasting faith. And I appreciated that it was Shapiro's way, too.

I loved the way this book was written. I really admire Shapiro as a writer and I'm interested to read more from her. She has a remarkable way of bringing out the profound in the ordinary without making it more than it is or telling us what we're supposed to be getting from it. Very few memoirs are open to interpretation, the way classic novels are, but Shapiro managed to write her memoir this way, and I adored it.

Unlike so many memoirs, I think just about anyone can relate to this book. I feel like I'm almost the opposite of Shapiro; she's a woman in her forties giving up hope of having more children while I'm just starting my family; she's abandoned her upbringing in a conservative faith while I am a devout Mormon; etc. But I couldn't help but be moved and inspired by Devotion. I recommend it.


  1. How exciting!!!!!
    I think you need to get your baby acquainted with the classics ASAP:

    1. Sorry this ended up in the wrong post. It was meant for the baby announcement and magically ended up here. ~ Ruth

  2. Hmm. I wonder how she did that: made her memoir open to interpretation. I'm reading "Handling the Truth..." right now, and Beth Kephart seems to think that if you don't draw meaning from the facts in your memoir, it's just a recitation.

    I guess we have to be open to new interpretations, even as we write our own ideas about what our lives meant?

    1. Certainly the author needs to draw meaning, but there's a point at which it can start to sound like the children's version of Aesop ("and the moral of the story is..."), and in my opinion, memoirs shouldn't be about being didactic or preachy to your reader. Basically what I'm saying is, there's a middle ground between simply reciting events from your life and using your stories to preach morals to your reader.