TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In a 2014 piece she wrote for The New Yorker, writer Dani Shapiro called herself a bit of an accidental memoirist. If that's so, it's been a lucky accident for her. Two of Shapiro's three memoirs, "Slow Motion" and "Devotion," have been best-sellers. Her latest memoir is called "Hourglass," and our book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's a winner.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Dani Shapiro's new memoir "Hourglass" opens on a scene from a marriage. On a winter's day, Shapiro looks out a window of her old house in Connecticut and spots her husband. Now pushing 60, he's standing in the driveway in his bathrobe, his pale legs stuffed into galoshes, aiming a rifle at the woodpecker who for months has been jackhammering holes into the side of their house. Shapiro's husband was once a foreign correspondent accessorized with a gun and bulletproof vest when he ventured into war zones. But in that wintery moment of reckoning, he's more Elmer Fudd than Ernest Hemingway.
You might imagine Shapiro witnessing that scene and joking, it's come to this. But Shapiro isn't replaying that memory for laughs. As a writer, she's known more for ruthless self-interrogation and a tough taking-it-on-the-chin tone. Her first and most celebrated memoir "Slow Motion" recounted how, as a young woman, Shapiro dropped out of college, became the mistress of a friend's stepfather and grew estranged from her Orthodox Jewish parents until a devastating car accident transformed her into her mother's caretaker. Her other memoirs have explored the terror of coping with her then-infant son's life-threatening illness and her parents' deaths.
But "Hourglass" is different. It's less an account of catastrophe than it is a clear-eyed inspection of the slow cracks certain to develop in a long marriage. Just as she watched that woodpecker ceaselessly rat-tat-tatting on the side of her house, Shapiro is attentive to the ways time steadily hammers away at the 18-year bond between her and her husband, exposing gaps, as well as places, where the framing seems strong. Shapiro's marriage to M, as she calls her husband here, is her third and by far the longest.
Jumping around in non-chronological, often disconnected and almost always incisive short paragraphs, Shapiro dramatizes the dizzying ways a lifetime passes, loops around, speeds up and sometimes seems to stand still. Shapiro describes the sensuousness of her courtship with M and their honeymoon in Paris no less. She recalls the relief of ordinary parenthood after their son's medical emergency had passed when, as Shapiro reflects, she and her husband were still young enough to believe that life holds only one close call per customer. In the present, that son is now about to go off to college. And Shapiro keeps shaking herself in dismay at the velocity of life.
Quoting John Updike, Shapiro says, for years we had the persistent sensation in our life and art that we were just beginning. Shapiro is only 54. So although she may strike youngsters, like, say, my undergrad students, as old and crusty, her meditation on time and mortality seems somewhat premature. That's where M comes in. He's a bit older and, as Shapiro presents him, somewhat depressed. When she looks at M's face, Shapiro says she sometimes feels as though he has fled the premises.
After years of reporting from war zones, M entered the film business. He writes screenplays that don't always get produced. As a consequence, the couple's income is unpredictable. In addition to its many other virtues, "Hourglass" underscores the tightrope tension of trying to support a middle-class lifestyle on writing.
Shapiro admits she and M have first-world problems. But she's also ruthlessly clear about the trade-offs they unknowingly made in following their literary ambitions. She tells us they work seven days a week and have no savings, no retirement plans, nothing to fall back on but each other. Ever since they first met, Shapiro says M has reassured her with the phrase, I'll take care of it, whether the pesky it be a woodpecker or an electric bill. But, of course, no one can always take care of it. That's the mundane, but nonetheless raw recognition at the core of "Hourglass" - that we're always bound to fall short on our promises to one another.
Towards the close of this charged memoir, Shapiro describes an evening at home where she and M sit before the fire talking about writing, the vocation that binds them and also stirs up such anxieties in the marriage. Disappointments and fears, however, are set aside for another time. Tonight, Shapiro says, we will stay at the edge of the dark forest until together we are brave enough to go back inside. That's a beautiful line of poetry and also not bad advice from Shapiro about how to pace one's self in a relationship that's hoping to go the distance.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Hourglass" by Dani Shapiro. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about treating mentally ill inmates from Rikers Island jail, which is perhaps the most famous or infamous jail in America.
My guest will be psychiatrist Elizabeth Ford who treated inmates who were sent to Bellevue. She's now chief of psychiatry for Correctional Health Services in New York City. Her new memoir is called "Sometimes Amazing Things Happen." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.