Reviews of Inheritance by Dani Shapiro


A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

by Dani Shapiro

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro X
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2019, 272 pages

    Jan 2020, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Michael Kaler
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About this Book

Book Summary

A new memoir about identity, paternity, and family secrets--a real-time exploration of the staggering discovery Shapiro recently made about her father, and her struggle to piece together the hidden story of her own life.

What makes us who we are? What combination of memory, history, biology, experience, and that ineffable thing called the soul defines us?

In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her father was not her biological father. She woke up one morning and her entire history--the life she had lived--crumbled beneath her.

Inheritance is a book about secrets--secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman's urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history. It is a book about the extraordinary moment we live in--a moment in which science and technology have outpaced not only medical ethics but also the capacities of the human heart to contend with the consequences of what we discover.

Timely and unforgettable, Dani Shapiro's memoir is a gripping, gut-wrenching exploration of genealogy, paternity, and love.

Chapter 23

Each time I felt strong and resolved enough, I typed various search terms into Google. Sperm donor. Donor conceived. Donor anonymity. Ethics of donor anonymity. History of sperm donation. I ordered all sorts of books, which would be waiting for me back home, packages stacked on our front porch. I already had a pile of articles from the 1940s through the early 1960s about Dr. Edmond Farris. I could hardly bring myself to read them. The language was archaic and devastating, like something from a science fiction comic book. Test tube tots. Was that what I once was?

There seemed to be communal outrage about donor insemination in the years surrounding my conception. Ethicists, religious scholars, lawyers, even many physicians believed it to be unlawful and immoral. At the same time, there was a smug certainty on the part of the doctors and scientists at the forefront of donor insemination. Secrecy, anonymity, and even eugenics were discussed in a matter-of-fact way. Donors were...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. The title of this book is Inheritance. What does it mean, in the context of the memoir?
  2. Shapiro chose two quotes for her epigraph, one from Sylvia Plath and the other from George Orwell. What do they mean individually, and how does each affect your understanding of the other?
  3. "You're still you," Shapiro reminds herself. What does she mean by this?
  4. Much of Shapiro's understanding of herself comes from what she believes to be her lineage. "These ancestors are the foundation upon which I have built my life," she says on page 12. Would Shapiro feel so strongly if her father's ancestors weren't so illustrious? How does Shapiro's understanding of lineage change over the course of the book?
  5. Judaism is passed on from mother to child' - the ...
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BookBrowse Review


Shapiro explores the ethical and existential questions at the heart of her journey with sensitivity and nuance. A complex and multifaceted memoir, interwoven with history and full of feeling, Inheritance is sure to appeal to loyal fans of the author as well as readers new to her thoughtful work...continued

Full Review (588 words)

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(Reviewed by Michael Kaler).

Media Reviews

New York Times
[T]he true drama of Inheritance is not Shapiro's discovery of her father's identity but the meaning she makes of it…Shapiro’s account is beautifully written and deeply moving — it brought me to tears more than once. I couldn’t help feeling unnerved, though, by the strength of her conviction that blood will out, which leads her uncomfortably close to genetic determinism.

Inheritance broaches issues about the moral ramifications of genealogical surprises, and about sperm donors' rights to privacy versus the rights of their offspring to know their roots, medical history, and half-siblings...These broader investigations save Inheritance from too much self-absorbed navel-gazing. Still, her chest-beating about who she is and how she could have missed the signs occasionally seems overwrought and melodramatic.

Starred Review. Page after page, Shapiro displays adisarming honesty and an acute desire to know the unknowable.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. For all the trauma that the discovery put her through, Shapiro recognizes that what she had experienced was 'a great story'—one that has inspired her best book.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Fascinating...This beautifully written, thought-provoking genealogical mystery will captivate readers from the very first pages.

Author Blurb Andre Aciman, author of Call Me by Your Name
Identity is frail business, and in her searing story, Dani Shapiro makes the most disquieting discovery: that everything, from her lineage, to her father, down to her very own sense of self is an astounding error. How do we live with ourselves after finding we are not who we thought we were? The answer is not disquieting. It is beautiful.

Author Blurb Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See
When Dani Shapiro discovers, purely by accident, that the father who raised her was not her biological father, she embarks upon a profound journey of understanding. What is ancestry? What is identity? Inheritance is a compulsively-readable investigation into selfhood that burrows to the heart of what it means to accept, to love, and to belong.

Author Blurb Jennifer Egan, author of Manhattan Beach
Inheritance is Dani Shapiro at her best: a gripping genetic detective story, and a meditation on the meaning of parenthood and family. It raises profound questions about the quandaries and responsibilities engendered by our newfound ability to know what—and whom—we are made of.

Author Blurb Meg Wolitzer, author of The Female Persuasion
With Inheritance, Dani Shapiro tells a startling story of origins—their deep reach and their lasting reverberations. This book reads like a beautiful, lived novel, moving and personal and true.

Author Blurb Will Schwalbe, author of Books for Living and The End of Your Life Book Club
Inheritance is an extraordinary memoir that speaks to themes as current as today's headlines and as old as human history...This beautifully crafted book is full of wisdom and heart, showing that what we don't know about our parents may not be as important as what we do.

Reader Reviews

J. Gartman

A Profund Read
I read this book when my parents told my sister and me, after 60 years, that my father was not my biological father. Dani's articulation of her experience, the intense shame that surrounded being sterile back in the 50s and 60s and the insidiousness...   Read More

Memorable Memoir
A fascinating memoir told in the personal and interesting voice of the author, Dani Shapiro. Its subject is very germaine to issues with adoption and ancestry problems in today's world. Thoroughly fascinating read.

It is amazing to realize that the future discoveries can have such an incredible impact on the past. Who would ever imagined 50 years ago that DNA could trace such a hidden secret!

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Beyond the Book

The Potential Dangers of Consumer DNA Testing

DNA kit from Ancestry.comEarly on in Inheritance Dani Shapiro agrees to order a DNA test through along with her husband after he suddenly becomes interested in genealogy. The results of Shapiro's kit happened to be life changing, upending everything the memoirist thought she knew about her family history. Her experience is extraordinary, but there are some important ethical and privacy-related concerns that one should take into account before signing up for a genealogical service.

Critics of genetic testing companies like worry about the privacy of DNA test results. A recent study published in the journal Science has indicated that genetic databases currently allow for the identification of about 60% of white Americans from an anonymous...

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Read-Alikes Full readalike results are for members only

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