Whether Dani Shapiro is writing fiction or memoir, her writing is always reflective and wise. Signal Fires, her first novel in fifteen years, follows on the heels of her poignant memoir Inheritance, and, like that memoir, examines the complexities of family relationships and the secrets that bind them together and tear them apart.
Signal Fires opens in the Summer of 1985 with three teenagers. They are drinking … and driving. Before the night is over, one of the teenagers will be dead. The other two, siblings Sarah and Theo, will be trapped in a lie for the next three decades, and their father, Dr. Benjamin Wilf, the first to arrive on the scene, will be complicit. Like the car wrapped around the tree, their shame and guilt will bind them so tightly they will not be able to extricate themselves from it. The only way for each of them to survive is to remain silent about what happened that night in 1985.
The novel moves backward and forward in time … 1985, 1999, 2010, 2014, 2020, and finally back to 1970 when the Wilf family was just beginning, and everything was still possible. Time compresses and expands. The past is never too far away.
Sarah and Theo tentatively move forward with their lives. Theo becomes a renowned chef and Sarah becomes a successful Hollywood writer and producer. They put distance between themselves and their parents to distance themselves from the past. Sarah will push everyone away and layer over the lie with alcohol, drugs, and an affair … but none of it will work.
By the time the Shenkmans move in across the street, Dr. Wilf is retired. When Mrs. Shenkman goes into premature labor, Dr. Wilf delivers baby Waldo, whose cord is wrapped around his neck, and saves his life. When lonely ten-year-old Waldo befriends Dr. Wilf through a shared interest in astronomy, something his father eschews, they are both saved.
“It’s possible to grow up in the wrong house, on the wrong street, in the wrong town, in the wrong part of the country. It’s possible to go to the wrong school. To have the wrong dad. To be pushed to do the wrong things. But it is also possible to survive all these psychic indignities if you have one, maybe two people who recognize you for who you are,” Shapiro writes.
Sarah and Theo return home when their mother is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and Shapiro weaves together all the threads of these tattered families. The novel is a poignant story about secrets and the desperate things that people do to keep them. Shapiro writes with heart and soul about our connections to people and to nature.
This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my interview with Dani Shapiro on Superior Reads, November 24 at 7:00 pm and the 26th at 6:00 am on WTIP, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at www.wtip.org.