Book Review: Devotion by Dani Shapiro

Can you choose your spiritual path, or are you born into it? This sort of nature vs. nurture question is at the heart of Dani Shapiro’s new book Devotion.

In her early forties (the afternoon of one’s life, says Carl Jung), she decides to begin sorting it out for herself and her young son. She gravitates to the Orthodox Judaism of her entire family, but doesn’t want to look for answers solely within the context of one dogma and doesn’t want tradition to keep her from searching.

The memoir is formatted into vignettes that weave a larger tale. Shapiro uses stories about her past – growing up in a divisive, tense household and when her son was gravely ill – and her present as a busy mom, wife, and writer to help make sense of her growing awareness. She explores a variety of paths, taking an a la carte approach, preferring to figure out what is right for her and her family rather than one-size-fits-all.

Devotion raises another subtle question: If part of a search for meaning is to reach out and connect on some level with the rest of the world, how does one find solitude for “the kind of silence inside of which one can transact some private business with the fewest obstacles, in Thoreau’s words”?  Shapiro struggles throughout the entire book to find this balance.

Her quest is genuine and as a writer she has an uncanny ability to pinpoint the crux of the emotional issue, something that’s not easy to do when it’s your own emotional issue. Though if one is comparing Devotion to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (and really it’s impossible not to), Shapiro’s tale is less compelling from a reader’s standpoint. Gilbert ‘s around the world odyssey began with a kick-you-in-the-butt divorce. It was an understandable motivation.  That’s not to say Shapiro’s search is any less credible or any less worthy. In fact it’s much more realistic for the average seeker. But for a reader it can’t help but lack the wow factor of Gilbert’s  journey (which some have called spiritual chick-lit).

Devotion is not a confessional in that Shapiro is not asking for forgiveness or revealing any dirty little secrets. Nor does she figure it all out, which can be good and bad from a reader’s standpoint. Some readers may feel that it mirrors their own spiritual journey – an ongoing process that is supposed to be lifelong. But some may feel that by the end of a (non-celebrity) memoir, they want to know what the author (and therefore they themselves) has learned from all that has transpired? What can they take away from this? There were many poignant and important moments in Devotion but no “here’s how my life is better now” or “here’s how I made peace with the questions I had” which ma leave the reader feeling unsatisfied in the end.

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Speaking of Eat, Pray, Love. Check out the new movie trailer starring Julia Roberts.

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