Book Review: Hourglass – Time, Memory, Marriage
October 04, 2020
Hourglass Book Cover Book Review Ranjani Rao memoir

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage 


Dani Shapiro

At the time of writing this memoir, Dani Shapiro had already written three prior memoirs. At the time of reading this memoir by Shapiro, I had read her latest one, Inheritance – A memoir of genealogy, paternity and love. I have often wondered how writing shapes not just our understanding of life, but how the very act of writing shapes us as we lead our lives. This book gives a glimpse into the life of a writer who is constantly, conspicuously exploring her life as she lives it.

As a prolific and popular writer and writing teacher, Shapiro is a keen observer, capturing imperceptible moments, those tiny shards of life that glisten like prisms in her competent hands, and shine light on the commonality of life. Her prose is polished, precise and perfectly paced. 

Measuring a marriage

While the memoir is ostensibly about marriage, it is also a meditation on time and memory. The book is organised more or less chronologically around the eighteenth year of her marriage to M, a former war correspondent with whom she shares a home and a teenage son.

There are impersonal tallies of things they have shared as a couple – 

“We have two dogs, one large, one small. We have attended 12 weddings, 9 bar or bat-mitzvahs, 6 graduations, 5 funerals. We have set foot in 22 states, 7 countries, 2 continents. We have flown 146000 miles and easily driven twice that.

And then there is a very frank admission of what makes this marriage, her third, special –

Special was not the slip dress by the Belgian designer that I would wear that June, nor the flower-bedecked chuppah draped with my father’s tallis. Special was not the Prelude to Bach’s Cello SUite no. 1, nor the loin of lamb in the private dining room of the old-school-French restaurant. It was not the delicate pave diamond band of leaves and flowers, nor the Provencal honeymoon. Special was that I had no exit strategy. Special was that I understood I was in it for life, come what may. For better, for worse.”

The narrative flits back and forth through time as she sifts through old journals that she comes across on a cleaning spree. “Wherever I go – in every neighborhood – I catch younger reversions of myself disappearing around corners.”  But the present is always front and center, with its own complex fears, of financial security, of illness, of failures on the professional and personal fronts.

How time impacts stories

I was startled by Shapiro’s rumination on the process of writing a memoir while the story is playing itself out. Most memoir teachers insist that in order to write about your own life story, you must let it lie for years, if not decades, to ‘find the necessary, ironic distance, the cool remove. How else to shape a narrative but from the insight and wisdom of retrospect?”. 

Having bought into this oft-repeated piece of advice, I was pleasantly surprised by Shapiro’s conclusion that “even retrospect is mutable. Perspective, a momentary figment of consciousness.” Perhaps writing your story while living it is not such a bad idea after all! 

The aspect of memory in this book is not just Shapiro’s dwelling on her life before she married M. It is also about the loss of memory, the hallmark of Alzheimer’s that afflicts her mother-in-law who has been married for sixty years. Shapiro delves deeper into the details of the disease as she and M collaborate on a project for a pharmaceutical company. Despite my familiarity with the research that drives the search for treatment for such conditions, the description of the empathy experiment in which she and M participate is heart-wrenching.

When chronology is eliminated, when life is shuffled like a tarot deck, it’s hard to keep track.

Literary couples

Given that M and Shapiro both have similar leanings towards writing, she mentions an interest in the lives of other literary couples; Sylivia Plath and Ted Hughes, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. 

I was taken aback by the words of Donald Hall, late poet Jane Kenyon’s husband, who has insightfully observed that “Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. For many couples, children are a third thing.” 

Shapiro’s ease with words, honed by her long writing career makes this slim volume an easy read. What makes it particularly valuable to writers is the inclusion of beautiful words by writers and artists like Andreinne Rich and Anne Truitt, poets like Wendell Berry, and Nobel Laureate, Wislawa Szymborska, among others. 

When compared to other memoirs, nothing of significance happens in this book, no major life change or character trajectory. It is a compilation of simple observations, well-told anecdotes, a collection of memories over eighteen years of marriage that sheds some light on how time and shared experiences can make or break a couple. Although I doubt if the same content by a writer other than Shapiro could have obtained a publishing contract, I would recommend this book as a practical guide to memoir writers.

My opinion: A quick read for those interested in reading memoir, a must-read for those considering writing a memoir.

Photo from Ranjani’s archives

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