Dani Shapiro has written several courageous and searing memoirs: “Slow Motion,’’ about the deaths of her parents when she was in her early 20s, “Devotion,’’ about a crisis of faith she suffered in her mid-40s. She has never written anything as raw, dark, or brave as “Hourglass.’’
Subtitled “Time, Memory, Marriage,” “Hourglass’’ is a slim yet penetrating meditation on her 18-year marriage to former Africa correspondent Michael Maren (she refers to him throughout only as “M’’). Told in brief, discrete segments, the book jumps around in time, from present to past and back again. Meditations and vignettes are interwoven with excerpts from the journal she kept on their honeymoon (in which she refers to herself as D), lists, and quotations from authors including Wendell Berry, Adrienne Rich, and Nietzsche.
“Hourglass’’ opens with a striking image of vulnerability: M standing on their driveway, in “the dead of winter . . . wearing nothing but a white terry-cloth bathrobe, his feet stuffed into galoshes.” Armed with a rifle, he has ventured out early one morning to try and dispatch the dogged woodpecker whose “rat-tat-tat-tat-tat” has been driving them both mad. He is unsuccessful.
From the outside, Shapiro appears to have a charmed life, personally and professionally. Her books have appeared on best-seller lists; Oprah Winfrey has interviewed her on “Super Soul Sunday.’’ M and D live in a gorgeous house in a bucolic setting with their beautiful teenage son. They run an idyllic writers retreat in Italy. With her porcelain skin, shimmering blond hair, and elegant attire, Shapiro has a glamorous public persona.
In “Hourglass,’’ however, Shapiro dedicates herself to exposing the stark reality of diminishment beneath the superfice of success. The woodpecker’s rat-tat-tat-tat-tat comes to symbolize the relentless pressures beating down upon the couple. Both figuratively and literally, she tells us, this is “a time of erosion.” Things in the house are “falling apart”: appliances failing, the basement flooding. M’s career is stagnating. Where once he had been offered glamorous magazine assignments, invited regularly to “appear as a talking head on CNN,” and “testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” now “he is no longer in anyone’s Rolodex.”
To pay their mortgage and their son’s private school tuition, M and D have taken on a dizzying array of freelance jobs. Working like the ant, they have yet stored little against the winter. They have no pension or retirement plan. M’s response to the failure of foresight is grasshopperish: “I’ll take care of it.” Shapiro has “always loved and longed to believe “ this “familiar refrain,” but her belief is fraying, her anxiety growing.
Shapiro’s doubt and guilt will resonate with anyone who’s been in a romantic partnership. She was the one who’d asked M to give up taking assignments in perilous settings. She initiated their move from vibrant New York City to a sleepy Connecticut town. Shapiro strives to “believe he doesn’t regret it. But still, has being with me stopped him from being him?”
Shapiro has received criticism for her failure to acknowledge her first, early marriage in some of her writing. In “Hourglass,’’ she lays it bare. She admits that she was “ashamed of [her] . . . complicated past,” tells us (and M) bluntly that this is her third marriage after two divorces, and avers that this time she is determined to persevere despite fissures and pressures, “terrible arguments,” and anguished couples therapy sessions. There is “no exit strategy.”
“Hourglass’’ is not an unflawed work: A few lines sound like self-help clichés; rather than increasing our sense of intimacy with her, the honeymoon journal entries have a distancing effect. But for the most part, as Shapiro ponders the eternal question of Frost’s “The Oven Bird’’ — “what to make of a diminished thing” — she gives us a gorgeous, poetic stay against loss and confusion. I closed “Hourglass’’ thinking of these lines from Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse”: “We sat grown quiet at the name of love;/ We saw the last embers of daylight die,/ And in the trembling blue-green of the sky/ A moon, worn as if it had been a shell/ Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell/ About the stars and broke in days and years.’’
“Hourglass’’ is a stalwart witness to the erosions of time’s tides that, in being stalwart, it also wishes to stand against.
Time, Memory, Marriage
By Dani Shapiro
Knopf, 145 pp., $22.95
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’