Growing up is an ambiguous concept and, in many cases, a seemingly arbitrary process. Rarely is the call to maturity as blatant and sudden as the events that jerked writer Dani Shapiro out of the last vestiges of her meandering girlhood. In her new memoir, "Slow Motion," the author of the novels "Playing With Fire," "Fugitive Blue" and "Picturing the Wreck" details the events surrounding the car accident that landed her parents in the intensive care unit, forcing Shapiro to bring her own life into sharp focus.
Memoirs by the young are something of a gamble -- often the writers have neither the self-awareness nor the quantity (or quality) of life experience to warrant a book-length exploration. "Slow Motion" is the exception that proves the rule. As a pretty, pampered young girl from an Orthodox Jewish family living in northeastern New Jersey (the part of New Jersey the jokes come from, she writes), Shapiro grew up feeling torn between her parents, her religion and a desire for freedom from its constraints, and the rewards of developing her intellect vs. cruising by on her abundant beauty. Prior to the accident, she was a Sarah Lawrence student who took up with her best friend's married stepfather, Lenny Klein, a flashy attorney who dolled her up in couture suits, trotted her around the world and showered her with lies and lavish gifts. She traded in college for the gilded cage, dropping out of school to pursue her acting, her ambivalence-ridden mistressing and her drinking. These events, and those that occur after the accident, are presented with the artful structure and language of a novel and the absorbing pace and intriguing details (running through the airport in her mink coat; tossing back screwdrivers on a lunch break from her hospital vigil; hiring a private investigator to track the activities of Lenny) of a true-crime thriller.
At its finest, Shapiro's writing has the spare elegance of a thin, gold bracelet -- with all the timeless appeal and fine craft that implies. The moment when she wheels her father in to see her mother for the first time since the accident is absolutely heart-rending, yet devoid of melodrama. Her self-examination is stark and untainted by self-pity, as during a boozy appraisal of a businessman during the plane ride to her parents' bedside: "The whole notion of physical beauty has grown increasingly important to me as my intellectual curiosity has vanished ... I have used myself as a physical instrument, slicing my way through the world with nothing but youth, long legs, and long blond hair. At times I think I have chosen the easy way, but every once in a while I realize that this may be the hardest way of all."
Even as the tragedy brings out the very worst in Shapiro's family, it ultimately brings out the best in her. Eventually, Shapiro decides to tend her own garden instead of being an exotic bloom, artfully arranged for display, then left to wilt in substance-addled oblivion. A great piece of writing and an inspirational tale for those who would consider trading substance for surface, "Slow Motion" illuminates the rocky road to integrity and maturity in graceful but wrenching steps.