How could a family and a marriage fall apart after so many happy years? Rachel Jensen finds out in Dani Shapiro's novel FAMILY HISTORY, the story of her family and how they deal with a child that shows signs of mental illness. The book opens with Rachel sitting in her house alone, watching home movies taken by her husband Ned. She stares at the movie screen and sees herself and her family, yet she does not recognize them. The happy smiles and laughter that she is watching is from a lifetime ago. She still has not adjusted to her new life without her husband or her daughter Kate. The smiles and laughter are only memories. The only remnant of her family is her young son Joshua, who lives with her in this house. He is far too young to really understand how bad things are for his parents and he does not know that he has a sister named Kate. For most of Joshua's life, Kate has not lived with the family.
Rachel goes downstairs to check her phone messages and listens to one that asks her to go to Stone Mountain in regards to Kate. Whatever the news is, Rachel is dreading to hear it. There could be no good news if they are calling her about Kate.
How did things get to this point? The bulk of the story is told in flashbacks. As the story line slowly progresses and the appointment at Stone Mountain approaches, the reader learns about Ned and Rachel's courtship and their romantic dreams of being artists before their children were even a glimmer in their eyes. The two of them lived in New York and, while trying to make their artistic dreams come true, Rachel learns she is pregnant. With the help of Ned's parents, who also happen to be very wealthy, they buy a fixer-upper near his parents' home in Massachusetts. It's away from the big city and closer to her in-laws, who could help them out as the two of them try to make a new life for their new family. Rachel sees this move as a big change --- along with her pregnancy --- and it becomes one of the pivotal points in their lives.
We learn about Kate, who had shown much promise of a bright future. We learn about the event that ultimately sends Kate away from her family, because she is too unstable to be cared for at home by her parents. Neither Ned nor Rachel saw the signs that led to this event. They did not see the signs that would have told them that Kate would start to go through a transformation, from happy-go-lucky preteen to sullen and moody teenager. Close friends said it was just a phase all girls go through and Rachel believed it for a while. Then things started to get worse.
They did not predict the unexplainable tantrums and mood swings Kate would begin to experience: her foul language at home, shoplifting incidences and hanging out with the wrong crowd. Again, this all could have been a phase that Kate was going through. No one would have believed that things would get so bad that Kate would have the power to break apart and destroy their family and nearly ruin a marriage and a love that should have lasted throughout the years. Ned and Rachel are united in their love and care for Kate, but when Kate reveals the ultimate accusation at her father, their lives are torn apart.
FAMILY HISTORY sounds like a complex psychological drama built around a family that is falling apart. Part of the story is just that, but there are other layers to this book. The relationship with mother and daughters is a secondary plot as we compare Rachel's relationship with her own dysfunctional mother to that of her own relationship with Kate. The study of a marriage is another subplot --- how two people who thought they knew each other so well become total strangers overnight. All these factors helped make this a very fast read for me, but overall I enjoyed the way Dani Shapiro writes. She made these characters seem familiar to me; I felt close to all of them, as if I was the friend or family that surrounded them. I finished this book in a record 24 hours. That's how much I enjoyed this book. This reviewer highly recommends FAMILY HISTORY and looks forward to reading Dani Shapiro's other novels.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton(Ratmammy@lofton.org) on January 21, 2011