I’ve just finished Dani Shapiro’s book Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, and I’m a little frustrated. Not because the book is bad and I’ve wasted my time – no, it’s quite charming. I’m frustrated that it has been undersold by being labelled a book predominately about Dani’s marriage, when in my view the book is far bigger than one relationship.
Even Dani herself has mentioned that the book is about her marriage, sharing in interviews the story of when she told her husband, “I think I want to write about us.” I’m going to politely disagree with the memoirist herself and say – this is not a book about marriage. It’s Dani Shapiro inviting you into her home, telling you to take a comfy seat and having a conversation. This is a book about the unfolding of who she is. It’s a book on “becoming”.
Events involving her husband are discussed in parts, but only because these events form part of the narrative of who she is. The book also touches on the pace of life, the choices, the never-quite-getting-it-rightness and the unstoppable change.
In this book, Dani shows us who she is, who she used to be, and why perhaps she’s still that same person. She shares her fears and her frustrations: wanting a life of stability, wanting her husband to at least acknowledge that he sometimes puts that stability at risk, but at the same time wanting him to not acknowledge it at all, since she needs him to be her source of safety in a world which is ultimately unsafe.
And aren’t we all like that? Full of contradictions, if we look closely and honestly at ourselves? (The Walt Whitman quote comes to mind: Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes).
At first, I felt uncomfortable by the lack of chapters. It is written like one long essay, but it’s not quite chronological. It is scattered with short thoughts, quotes from other writers, diary entries and memories. She zigs and zags from one thought bubble to another.
But even when she takes me back in time, then brings me to the present again, I never feel distracted. I still feel as though I’m always moving forwards, in a way, still watching Dani’s unfolding. In fact, at times I wanted Dani to show a little more, to go a bit further back in time. But in this book, she is mainly focusing on the middle chapter of her “becoming” – the “holy shit, I am a grown-up, this is it” part of life. But she doesn’t word it that way, of course. She has a lovely, honest, down-to-earth energy.
And “lovely” is a word I see in a lot of the reviews for this book. I think it’s accurate. What could be more lovely than someone laying out all the jumbled pieces of their soul, trusting that the reader understands it all and won’t misuse it?
There are ups and downs but no major earth shattering events in this story. Nothing all that much out of the ordinary, even with the bouts of death and disease. But its ordinariness is what makes it so good.
The book isn’t sending a message of, “look, my marriage is absolutely fascinating, and my life is too.” Rather, “These are the pieces of me. This is how I got here. These are the characters around me which help to tell my story. This is how my heart works.” Her relationship is the prop for us to witness her unfolding.
I loved the book in all it’s beautiful disjointedness – but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a book about marriage. To call it a book about marriage is taking something expansive, beautiful, yet strangely simple and making it small.