Dani Shapiro arrived at the point in her life that many people reach, especially as they approach the age at which you realize that you have probably lived at least half of your life: She wanted answers. It seemed that all she had was questions. Lots of questions.
Shapiro grew up the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish father. According to her mother’s best friend, Shapiro’s mother was “brilliant” — and an atheist, a fact Shapiro had not realized during her mother’s lifetime. Shapiro describes her mother as “extraordinarily difficult,” spiteful and “full of rage, with a temper that could flare, seemingly out of nowhere.” After growing up in a traditional, ritualistic home, Shapiro took solace in her twenties at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But by the time she was married and gave birth to her first child in her thirties, she was a woman lacking faith and a concrete belief system.
Her son, Jacob, was born with a rare neurological condition that caused him to have seizures — and could have resulted in brain damage. One of the most heartbreaking passages in the book is Shapiro’s description of being so frightened for her son’s life that she found herself praying incessantly for his survival, whispering “please” over and over again. “Never once did I wonder who — if anyone — might be listening,” she writes. Still, “[i]n the unlikely event that anyone was listening, I wanted to be sure to be heard.” Years later, watching her healthy young son playing outside, Shapiro asked her husband, Michael, if he too had prayed for Jacob’s recovery. Shapiro recounts that her husband stared at her as if she had “asked him if he practiced voodoo, or burned incense at an altar,” before telling her that he never prayed because it never occurred to him to do so. “Did it help?” he asked her, to which she responded, “It certainly didn’t hurt.”
Shapiro’s eventual quest for spiritual understanding was fueled, in part, by the questions Jacob posed as he grew — questions to which she had no answers. Living in Brooklyn on September 11, 2001, contributed to her restlessness and uncertainty, causing her to abruptly list their home for sale shortly thereafter. The tearful realtor advised her not to wait too long to put the house on the market because “[t]here’s going to be a line behind you.” The house sold quickly and Shapiro moved with her husband and child to Connecticut where she continued meditating, studying yoga, and examining her lifelong feeling of being an “outsider.” Shapiro readily acknowledges that, had they stayed in New York, Devotion would probably never have been written. Living in the country, away from the noise and pace of the city, intensified her desire for answers — as the noise inside her head seemed to grow ever louder, in contrast to their quiet surroundings.
Devotion is written as a series of vignettes or remembrances about Shapiro’s experiences, told not in a linear, strictly chronological fashion, but, rather, as her recollections and experiences inform her search for a deeper understanding of life’s purpose and significance. Each short “chapter,” for lack of a better description, is a story in and of itself about some aspect of Shapiro’s life or her detective-like journey for faith and peace. Thus, the book naturally lacks a specific beginning, middle, and end. For that reason, it is the kind of volume that readers will want to return to again over time, perhaps as a reference tool in conjunction with their own exploration and seeking.
Shapiro freely admits she discovered, through the process of writing Devotion, that she really did not want to find answers to her questions. Rather, she wanted to learn while “liv[ing] inside the questions.” So potential readers should be cautioned not to follow in the footsteps of this reviewer: “Assuming Dani had found the answers, I made the mistake of immediately flipping to the end of the book expecting the answer to be there waiting for me in big bold letters. The answer was there, but it wasn’t in big bold letters. It was interwoven throughout the entire book. I would tell you the answer I came to, but it probably won’t be the same for you.” And therein lies the beauty of Devotion. Unlike other authors who reminisce about the precise moment when all was reveals to them and they knew for certain that they had stumbled upon the answer to life’s perplexing inquiries, Shapiro recognizes that the pursuit of spiritual oneness with and an abiding faith in something greater than ourselves is an ongoing process, not a destination. “A book about seeking reaches a point at which it must end, but with any luck the seeking continues,” she notes. Amen.