The bond between mothers and daughters forms the dark and pulsating heart of Dani Shapiro’s gripping new novel, Family History (Alfred A. Knopf, $23). Rachel Jensen seems to have it all: wonderful, sexy husband, lovely and accomplished teen-aged daughter, fulfilling work as an art restorer, beautiful old house in a charming New England town. But when Rachel becomes pregnant with her second child, her daughter Kate suddenly starts behaving in a bizarre and disturbing way. And after the baby, Josh, is born, he suffers a terrible accident while in Kate’s care. Rachel is thrust into an untenable conflict: how to continue loving the one child who has, intentionally or not, wounded the other.
As the narrative unfolds, we are given glimpses of Rachel as a daughter as well as a parent. Her own mother, Phyllis, is both controlling and cold, and it Rachel’s constant effort to be the kind of parent Phyllis never was. Among her many disservices, Phyllis seems to have deprived Rachel of her spiritual heritage, a loss that Rachel feels keenly. Walking on Manliattan’s Upper West Side with Kate, she notices a synagogue she attended with her father as a young girl. “When I was ten or eleven,” she recalls, “thanks to Phyllis’s campaign for assimilation, I no longer thought it was cool to go to synagogue, and on Saturday mornings, I hung out with my friends instead. I was never bat mitzvahed, and I didn’t go to Hebrew school. By the time I went to college, my father had given up on his spiritual side altogether. He played raquetball on Saturday mornings instead, his middle aged face twisted into a paroxysm of rage as he smashed the ball against the sides of the court again and again.”
Yet when Josh is hurt, Phyllis warms up, and even reverts to Yiddish to express her love: “‘Sweet kepeleh,’ she murmured. When she straightened up again, she had tears in her eyes.” As Rachel struggles to find her way back to Kate, there is the quiet but hopeful suggestion that perhaps she has made some incremental progress toward Phyllis as well.