Skip to main content

Signal Fires


Signal Fires

The name of Dani Shapiro’s popular podcast --- “Family Secrets” --- would have been an apt title for SIGNAL FIRES, her sixth novel and first in 15 years. Whether it’s in her fiction or recent nonfiction works like HOURGLASS and INHERITANCE, the beauties and entanglements of family life have always been one of her preoccupations. In this tender and deeply affecting story, Shapiro explores the reverberation of a long-ago tragedy in the lives of the members of one family, and the unlikely links forged between that family and another initially tied to them only by the circumstance of residential proximity.

Over a span of half a century, Shapiro follows the Wilfs and the Shenkmans, who live on opposite sides of Division Street in the fictional suburb of Avalon in Westchester County, New York. It’s “a neighborhood like any other, with the secrets and heartaches and lies, the triumphs and moments of grace that weave their way through all communities.”

"SIGNAL FIRES is a nearly perfect blend of engrossing story and serious character-driven fiction. Given the arc of Dani Shapiro’s literary career, that’s hardly a surprise, but it doesn’t make it any less gratifying."

On an ordinary night in August 1985, 17-year-old Sarah Wilf casually tosses car keys to her 15-year-old brother, Theo. They’re joined by a friend, Misty Zimmerman, but that joy ride ends in tragedy when Theo loses control of the car, which then slams into a beloved oak tree on the Wilfs’ property, killing Misty. The Wilf teens survive the accident with minor injuries and make a pact with their parents never to reveal the truth about who was driving, “the deepest kind of family secret, one so dangerous that it will never be spoken.”

In prose that is both efficient and graceful, Shapiro reveals how this effort to suppress the truth warps the outwardly idyllic lives of the Wilfs. Sarah goes on to marry, bear twin daughters, and become a successful Hollywood producer, but she turns to alcohol and a dangerous affair to assuage her pain. Theo flees to South America for five years after dropping out of college, eventually returning to New York City, where he successfully establishes a pair of trendy restaurants while failing to forge any enduring emotional ties.

Their parents --- Benjamin, an esteemed doctor, and Mimi, the quintessential suburban housewife and community volunteer --- ache from their complicity in the deception, as they’ve “buried the truth of what happened deeper with each passing year.” Benjamin’s guilt is exacerbated by his belief that his attempt to render aid to Misty may have hastened her death instead, which he knows “will forever be a stain on the souls of his children.”

The much younger Shenkmans --- Alice and her husband, whose first name Shapiro chooses not to reveal --- move to Avalon nearly three decades after the Wilfs. On New Year’s Eve 1999 --- the evening when the world is holding its breath for the arrival of Y2K --- Alice goes into labor and, with Benjamin’s assistance, delivers Waldo on her kitchen floor. On a late December night 11 years later, the life of that boy, a budding genius with a preternatural interest in astronomy (he has memorized the names of the constellations, among other feats), intersects --- first with Ben, then with other members of the Wilf family, in a circumstance that is both tragic and transcendent.

At this point in the review, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that SIGNAL FIRES is heavily plot-driven, but that would be incorrect. Though it’s barely more than 200 pages, Shapiro deftly balances these events with studious attention to her characters’ rich and diverse inner lives and the depth of their struggles.

In doing so, SIGNAL FIRES explores several themes. Among them is the notion of time, which Shapiro artfully plays with by rejecting strict chronology in favor of scenes that hopscotch with seeming randomness through time at several intervals from 1985 to 2020. Readers are given a single luminous glimpse of a young, optimistic Wilf family in 1970 as it moves into the Division Street house, which packs a powerful emotional punch.

As he prepares to move from that home --- one that he and Mimi have inhabited for 40 years before selling it --- Benjamin, the novel’s most sympathetic character, “has come to believe that we live in loops rather than one straight line; that the air itself is made not only of molecules but of memory; that these loops form an invisible pattern; that past, present, and future are a part of this pattern; that our lives intersect for fractions of seconds that are years, centuries, millennia; that nothing ever vanishes.” In the novel’s penultimate scene, he muses that “perhaps time is not a continuum, but rather, past, present, and future are always and forever unspooling.”

Another preoccupation is the idea of connections --- whether they arise intentionally or by sheer chance. Reflecting on the ties between the two families, Benjamin concludes that “all is somehow connected, traceable if only he knew how to look.” And as Waldo leaves his childhood home for what he believes is the last time, he will recognize “a force that connects him to the world he apprehended as an almost eleven-year-old boy. He won’t know who is reaching him through time and space, but he will know he is not alone.”

SIGNAL FIRES is a nearly perfect blend of engrossing story and serious character-driven fiction. Given the arc of Dani Shapiro’s literary career, that’s hardly a surprise, but it doesn’t make it any less gratifying.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 21, 2022

Signal Fires
by Dani Shapiro

  • Publication Date: October 24, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0593467965
  • ISBN-13: 9780593467961