Dani Shapiro tells the true story of her DNA test journey in Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. On a lark, she does a DNA test and unexpectedly discovers that her dad isn’t her biological father.
She then allows her readers to be a fly on the wall, as she dissects the situation and her feelings about it. In the mix, you learn about her Orthodox Jewish upbringing and the kind of family she’s created for herself as an adult.
She had a close relationship with her long-dead father, and feels connected to his family, their history and heritage. And yet, at the same time she questions that connection, simply based on looks alone. Shapiro is blond and blue-eyed, rather than carrying the coloring of either parent. Other folks in her life question her paternity and Jewish heritage, just based on that. How she reconciles these experiences with the DNA news is the crux of the story.
Shapiro also talks a lot about her mother, including her borderline personality disorder. Denials and secrets are the glue that holds her parents together. And that can’t be good for their only daughter. But so it is. And we get a court side seat to the her recovery process.
In our house we are fascinated by DNA, genetics, and especially genealogy. Most days my husband spends a few hours researching various branches of his family. I can trace parts of my own family back as far as the 1100s, thanks to the work of other family members. The process of connecting with those long-past generations is often our dinner table conversation. So Inheritance is a book I should have read the moment it published.
And, like Shapiro, my family has secrets. They are blurry pictures, where my generation only knows outlines without detail. The unknowable nature of these secrets was maintained among my mother and her siblings. They agreed even in their youth, to say nothing to us about what they knew. Denial runs deep.
For both these reasons, Inheritance was fascinating for me on many levels. Shapiro touches on many topics—from privacy to donor insemination to the broader nature of families. This story offers the opportunity for plenty of social commentary.
I sometimes say that an author bares their soul in a memoir. Well, in this case Shapiro REALLY bares everything. But she has a nuanced style and it never feels like over sharing.
I recommend Inheritance to anyone who’s had a DNA surprise, and even those of us whose test came back exactly as expected. And if you like a juicy, heartfelt memoir, give this a try.
Pair with The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon (a fictional story about family secrets) or Educated by Tara Westover (another memoir about a family in denial).