Dani Shapiro is the author of "Signal Fires: A Novel." (Photo/Beowulf Sheehan)
Dani Shapiro is the author of "Signal Fires: A Novel." (Photo/Beowulf Sheehan)

New novel from ‘Family Secrets’ podcast host explores aftermath of tragedy

Unspooling long-held family secrets has become a specialty of Dani Shapiro’s. She has hosted the popular “Family Secrets” podcast for several years, and her five published memoirs have often explored suppressed knowledge within her own family. With “Signal Fires,” Shapiro returns to fiction for the first time in 15 years, but she has not strayed far in terms of subject matter. Her new novel probes the long-term cost of secrets, as viewed through the Wilfs, a nonobservant Jewish family in a New York suburb.

The book begins with a sense of foreboding, as the reader recognizes that little good is likely to come from three teenagers on a late-night joyride, particularly when drunk 17-year-old Sarah Wilf tells her 15-year-old brother, Theo, to take the wheel. And within a couple of pages, a tragic accident occurs. In its aftermath, Sarah claims to have been driving, which will be the official story, despite the entire family knowing it to be untrue. “It will become the deepest kind of family secret, one so dangerous that it will never be spoken,” Shapiro writes.

I’ve offered what may feel like a spoiler, only because it’s not much of one.

“Signal Fires” is not about the crash, but about the consequences of unaddressed trauma. We are offered a window on the Wilfs as over the course of decades they contend with the aftershocks of this tragic moment.

The novel jumps a quarter century ahead from that terrible night in 1985. Mimi, the family’s matriarch, now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and is living in a memory care facility. Her husband, Ben, a retired physician, is packing up their belongings and vacating their house to be near her. Sarah lives in Los Angeles, where she has become an accomplished film producer, and also an alcoholic. Theo is a celebrated chef in Brooklyn after years spent living overseas, during which he was out of contact with his family. He pours all his energies into the two acclaimed restaurants he runs, where “his patrons — his regulars — are his family.”

The accident has figured prominently in all of the Wilfs’ lives, as has their silence about it: “Sarah sometimes wonders whether talking would have been better. Silence didn’t make it go away but instead drove the events of that night more deeply into each of them.” And her parents’ communication has not been any better. When Ben tells his wife, “Mimi, we should talk,” she responds, “We don’t have to talk, Ben … Let’s not talk.” Unable to face their shared trauma, they instead live damaged lives, incapable of moving forward as a family.

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An interconnected plotline is set in motion when Ben begins a friendship with Waldo, a brilliant 10-year-old boy who lives across the street. Waldo, who may be on the autism spectrum, is focused on the stars in the sky and on a computer program that traces the constellations across time, and he draws Ben into his interest. Ben comes to understand, as does the reader, that Waldo thirsts for the warm embrace that Waldo’s father is unable to offer.

Waldo’s father, referred to as Shenkman, is frustrated with the course of his life. Constantly feeling inferior to his more successful peers, he has pinned his hopes on his son. However, Waldo has not turned out to be the sort of son his father dreamed of raising, and Shenkman’s immense disappointment is all too often expressed in anger. After losing his temper and punishing Waldo unreasonably one evening, Shenkman apologetically enters his son’s bedroom late that night in a haunting portrait of an ineffectual father: “He takes a couple of steps toward Waldo’s bed. He wants to touch the soft curve of his cheek. I’m sorry is on the tip of his tongue. He won’t say it, but maybe Waldo will feel it.”

Though cognizant of his own shortcomings, Shenkman cannot turn that awareness into action, and the only time he can come close to displaying affection to Waldo is when his son is asleep. Ironically, Waldo turns out not to be in his bed and Shenkman’s earlier outburst is the cause of his son’s disappearance.

The novel’s structure can be a bit challenging, both because it is told from multiple points of view and, more significantly, because the narrative leaps back and forth over a 50-year period, resisting linear storytelling. But looking anew at the passage of time seems to be one of Shapiro’s intentions.

The novel concludes in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, and it is interesting to see how this moment we are still living in is portrayed. For Theo, it offers an opportunity for redemption. With his destination restaurants suddenly irrelevant in a lockdown, he shutters them and, with a newfound sense of purpose, begins using his gift for cooking to help care for his community. Some other characters will experience a sort of healing.

Shapiro is a highly skilled writer who crafts her characters expertly, giving them lives that are complex and fully developed within a rather short novel. I could have done without some of the narrator’s occasional metaphysical assertions, but this novel offers much to appreciate and reflect on, resonating for anyone who has experienced the long-term reverberations of painful events.

“Signal Fires: A Novel” by Dani Shapiro (Knopf, 240 pages)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.