An outsider might surmise that Rachel Jensen's life is eye-rollingly perfect. She has a good marriage, a golden child of a daughter, a big house in the suburbs. But in Family History, author Dani Shapiro examines what becomes apparent on closer inspection: small fissures in this seemingly flawless family portrait that, if ignored, can become gaping cracks.
When Rachel discovers she is pregnant after dating Ned for a year, the two decide to exchange the craziness of New York City for marriage and a fixer-upper in suburban Massachusetts. They move away from more than just the hectic city life, though. Rachel is anxious to put some distance between herself and her overbearing mother. Ned backs away from a frustrating, stalled career as an artist.
They settle into their new lives easily. Ned teaches at the local private school while Rachel raises their daughter Kate, who has blossomed into a star athlete and gifted student. But the things they were so enthusiastic to put behind them have a way of resurfacing: Rachel's perpetually disapproving mother continues to insert herself into their lives at the most inopportune times, and Ned feels a growing resentment at having abandoned his art. Still, these disturbances are slapped away like pesky insects.
It's no surprise, then, that when Kate begins showing increasingly disturbing signs of something more than just surly teen angst, her parents do what they always do with problems: put them out of their minds. But in one moment, Kate's actions put the entire family and their outwardly idyllic life in jeopardy. Shapiro, author of the best-selling memoir Slow Motion as well as three previous novels, creates a forceful story filled with all-too-human characters. She presents each person fully and without judgment: there are reasons Rachel's mother clings the way she does, just as there are reasons for Ned and Rachel's willful ignorance of their difficulties.
Family History is a powerful look at the should-haves and what-ifs that persist after the damage is done. "Turn one corner, and everything lines up differently," says Rachel. "Everything we do matters. Every single blessed thing."