By – October 16, 2022

Can a sin­gle mis­take redi­rect the tra­jec­to­ry of an entire fam­i­ly? Such is the ques­tion haunt­ing Dani Shapiro’s new nov­el, Sig­nal Fires. In the mid-1980s, a teenage girl’s care­less error sets the stage for a fatal mis­step by her broth­er — the result of which for­ev­er changes every mem­ber of their once-com­fort­able, nuclear fam­i­ly. Shapiro ele­vates this trope with her ele­gant writ­ing, sup­port­ed by a clever plot, relat­able char­ac­ters, and brisk pac­ing. She also delves into meta­physics, with each dam­aged char­ac­ter nav­i­gat­ing an altered real­i­ty and find­ing his or her place with­in an inter­con­nect­ed universe.

When the nov­el opens, Sarah and Theo Wil­ff are teenagers whose inno­cence comes to an abrupt end. They are respon­si­ble for someone’s death, a hor­ror that ulti­mate­ly involves their father, Ben. The fam­i­ly buries the secret until it begins to fes­ter in each of them. Indeed, for the sib­lings, Silence didn’t make it go away but instead drove the events of that night more deeply into each of them. Nei­ther of them had ever been able to unsee what they saw, unhear what they heard.” Even Mimi, the oth­er­wise-thought­ful moth­er and wife, shies away from the truth when Ben attempts to tell her what he knows. We don’t have to talk, Ben,” she says. “ … Let’s not talk.”

Shapiro veers dizzy­ing­ly back and forth from one time peri­od to anoth­er, ulti­mate­ly span­ning fifty years; with­in these peri­ods she often flash­es for­ward to reveal tan­ta­liz­ing snip­pets of future lives. Ear­ly in the nov­el, she describes Wal­do Shenkman, a neigh­bor, as a three-year-old who doesn’t use his words” — and then, in the same para­graph, as a grown man unable to use his words” with his frus­trat­ed wife. It’s a tes­ta­ment to Shapiro’s abil­i­ties as a writer that we nev­er feel whiplashed when being con­veyed from one time peri­od to anoth­er. Instead, the non­lin­ear nar­ra­tive immers­es us in the five main char­ac­ters’ most trans­for­ma­tive moments.

Upon reunit­ing with his sis­ter after years of absence, Theo reflects that “ … he’d like to take this sus­pend­ed moment — the new mil­len­ni­um already careen­ing inex­orably for­ward — and roll it back instead. Back, back through lay­ers of time to a split sec­ond when things could have gone dif­fer­ent­ly, if only they had known.… If only they could … stop it there, right there, at the small but indeli­ble spot they missed the first time around, if only, then per­haps their whole fam­i­ly could begin again.”

Lay­ered and fine­spun, Sig­nal Fires ends with the fam­i­ly arriv­ing, in the ear­li­est time peri­od fea­tured yet, at their new address. As they enter the house, the nar­ra­tor mus­es, If you were to see them, Ben and Mimi Wil­ff, as they begin their lives in Aval­on, you would wish them God­speed. You would hope they know how lucky they are, and how blessed.”

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance edi­tor and writer, has a BS in jour­nal­ism from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in Eng­lish from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois.

Discussion Questions

Dani Shapiro, already renowned for her mem­oirs, has writ­ten a mas­ter­ful nov­el in which she exam­ines what lies beneath the love­ly facades of a qui­et street in Jew­ish sub­ur­bia. Bounc­ing back and forth across time and space, eschew­ing tra­di­tion­al chronol­o­gy as the nov­el moves from a fate­ful night in the 1980s to New Year’s Eve Y2K to a pan­dem­ic- Zoom class, and back again, Sig­nal Fires shows how rela­tion­ships and pat­terns between peo­ple can crys­tal­lize, even when the under­ly­ing caus­es remain unspoken. 

From a poignant ren­der­ing of the inner work­ings of the mind of a woman suf­fer­ing from Alzheimer’s to expla­na­tions of daz­zling astro­nom­i­cal phe­nom­e­na as seen through the eyes of a pre­co­cious young boy, to mouth­wa­ter­ing descrip­tions of a son’s gas­tro­nom­ic exploits, Shapiro weaves a beau­ti­ful tapes­try from the ten­u­ous gos­samer threads that link two Jew­ish fam­i­lies. The nov­el is engross­ing and dif­fi­cult to put down, but make no mis­take; its achieve­ment is a qui­et one. Ulti­mate­ly, Sig­nal Fires burns with a pow­er­ful­ly hope­ful claim: love and care between peo­ple can ease the ache of bro­ken­ness and loss.