Although she began her writing career as a novelist, Dani Shapiro has been widely recognized for her bestselling memoirs, “Devotion” and “Slow Motion.”
“Hourglass” is another poignant memoir in which she reflects on the moments that have defined her 18-year marriage.
Part memoir, part meditation on time and marriage, Shapiro expertly moves between present and past.
In the “now” of the memoir, Shapiro and her husband (referred to only as M.) are in their 50s, living in rural Connecticut with their teenage son.
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She addresses with piercing directness what it feels like to know that her and M.’s careers — they are both writers — have likely reached their denouements. She clearly sees old age peeking around the corner.
“There is less elasticity now. Less time to bounce back. And so I heed the urgent whisper and move with greater and greater deliberation. I hold my life with M. carefully in my hands like the faience pottery we brought back from our honeymoon long ago. We are delicate. We are beautiful. We are not new. We must be handled with care.”
She and M. are in the arduous process of cleaning out their home, cataloging and culling their belongings. Within the stacks of photographs, diaries and notebooks, Shapiro finds windows to the past.
Stumbling on something as innocuous as a to-do list, she discovers that “the decades that separate that young mother making her lists from the middle-aged woman discovering them feel like the membrane of a giant floating bubble. A pinprick and I’m back there.”
And with her we go. She dives into a kaleidoscope of memories portrayed vividly in scene: the party where she and M. meet, her infant son as he is rushed to the emergency room, their wedding, her parents’ catastrophic car accident. Of course, life is an accumulation of small moments, and Shapiro also gives us glimpses of tense car rides, the farmers market, a marital spat involving a picnic and bees.
Imbued with tender revelations, “Hourglass” considers the ever-changing nature of love and identity. She tells her younger self, “The future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up.”
It not only focuses on what has happened but also on what could have been.
Marriage requires sacrifice, Shapiro reminds us, and that can mean leaving some doors unopened. She worries that her husband, a former war correspondent turned screenwriter, forever regrets taking the safer path for the sake of their family.
In addition to the selves she and M. have shed and the selves who never came to fruition, she looks ahead toward who they will become.
“Our world will narrow as the storm of time washes over us. It will bleach us, expose our knots, whittle us down like old driftwood.”
Shapiro deftly binds observations and memories in a way that mimics the unpredictable, seemingly random turns of the human mind while underlying stories unfold throughout the memoir.
The past, present and future of her marriage coexist on the page with profound resonance. As Shapiro writes, “Dig deep enough and everything that has ever happened is alive and whole, a world unto itself — scenes, words, images — unspooling in some other dimension.”
“Hourglass” is a deeply moving work that is simultaneously an intimate and universal reflection on marriage.
Erin Saxon is an intern from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s creative writing MFA program.
“Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage” by Dani Shapiro (160 pages; Knopf; $22.95)