Who am I? Why am I here? And how shall I live? These are the three great spiritual questions that every human being wrestles with and in many ways, our lives are shaped by our answers. Dani Shapiro, author of memoirs including Slow Motion, Devotion, and Hourglass, now tells the riveting story of how she reckoned with a powerful revelation resulting from her decision to spit into a small plastic vial from Ancestry: The DNA Test that Tells a More Complete Story of You. She had no idea whatsoever the secret she would learn — that the man who raised her and who she deeply loved was not her biological father.

Readers of Shapiro’s earlier work know that she was an only child raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and was utterly devastated when her father died in a terrible car accident years ago. Readers also know that she herself has an only child, a son who was born with a frightening illness, and that she has a wonderfully supportive husband. Now, with Inheritance, readers know even more about her. Specifically, that she is fearless and unflinching. A detective in search of her own true story, she follows every breadcrumb she can find, speaking with relatives in their nineties, researching the history of fertility clinics, and patiently waiting for her biological father to respond favorably to her request for communication.

Shapiro paints a particularly haunting picture of a person confronted with the truth behind her own face in the mirror: I trace my fingers across the planes of my cheekbones, down my neck, across my clavicle, as if to be certain I still exist. One can easily imagine the disorienting sensation of looking in the mirror at 54 years of age and seeing the face of a stranger staring back at you, a face that at once affirms what you’ve always on some level suspected but never understood, and at the same time unstitches the person that you are.

Inheritance is the work of a highly disciplined person and writer, one unusually adept at conjuring a complexity, letting it steep for just the right amount of time, and then dispelling all of the tension she has wrought with a snap of her magic fingers. Hers is a story few would choose but many more will likely contend with as DNA testing reveals, with stunning quickness and precision, secret histories people have long depended on to remain shrouded in uncertainty or forgotten. Inheritance will rivet you and make you weep as it offers this comfort — that no matter the particularities of the genetic code that built your body, there is not one of us who is truly certain of who we are, why we are here, or how we should live.

Jessica Flaxman

Jessica Flaxman

Bookclique is brought to you by Jessica Flaxman, an educator and writer who lives outside of Boston with her husband and two daughters. She is author of the blog What I Learned Today in School and is an editor of Klingbrief. Jessica’s students, teachers, and friends are part of this project in support of book culture, readers and reading.