One of my favorite lines about the experience of time is simple: “Time passes,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her novel To The Lighthouse. In the new memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, Dani Shapiro explores the passage of time through the lens of her marriage of eighteen years (and counting). Since marriages usually appear in memoir only after they have ended through death or divorce, I found it refreshing to read about a marriage still unfolding. Shapiro and her husband “M.” are happily married, which is not to say that there haven’t been disappointments.
Combining her own experiences with the wisdom of other writers and thinkers, Shapiro has written an elegant and inspiring memoir that is very hard to put down. Her simple yet poetic prose is a pleasure to read, and the book’s slim length (145 pages) makes it easy to inhale over a just a few days, if not in one sitting. This is a perfect fall read, as the cooler weather and shorter days invite us to slow down, stay home, and spend more time on reflection.
Dani Shapiro isn’t a psychologist or marital counselor, but she does know the difference between successful and unsuccessful marriages. Before meeting “M.,” she had two short marriages that ended in divorce. She doesn’t spend much time rehashing those past relationships other than to say she was young and wanted to be married, but always knew she could get out of it. To explain how the third time was different, she writes: “Special had nothing to do with 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.” This is one of many truths Shapiro reveals in this book: marriage is not about weddings.
What does help two people stay together? Shapiro reflects on poet Donald Hall’s idea of a third thing: “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.” Hall notes that many couples have children as their third thing. Some start businesses together, or travel the world to see operas together. The third thing in Shapiro’s marriage include their son Jacob, an annual writing conference in Italy they founded and run together, and various writing projects they work on together, including a play about Alzheimer’s commissioned by a pharmaceutical company.
Shapiro structures her memoir in short vignettes that criss-cross time. Interspersed with her narration of past and present are excerpts from the journal she kept during her honeymoon in France. She recalls a bottle of olive oil she and “M.” brought home, then waited for a “special occasion” to use. By the time they got around to opening it, the olive oil was rancid. Shapiro lets these anecdotes speak for themselves as little lessons on what we can and cannot hold onto.
Over the course of the book, we learn the story of Shapiro and her husband, from how they met to the dreams that propelled their early years and all of the ways, big and small, life surprised them, fell short of their expectations, or worked out for the best. Their son Jacob is diagnosed with a rare and life-threatening disease in infancy, but survives. They try and fail to have a second child. “M.” writes screenplays for movies and TV shows; Shapiro publishes books and teaches at writing retreats around the world. As Shapiro sums up their working life: “There were some years things worked out. Other years, things didn’t.” She acknowledges the relative privilege of her life, writing that “We have…First World problems.” Still,: “M. and I work very hard by any standard,” she writes, “we have always worked pretty much seven days a week, and every waking hour…we have no savings, no retirement plan…we have nothing to fall back on but each other.” Later, Shapiro writes that looking for full-time academic teaching jobs is both her worst-case scenario and a thing she does in the middle of the night when she is too worried to sleep.
Although her perch on the ladder of socioeconomic and professional success may be higher than most people will ever reach, Shapiro’s anxieties reflect a common modern fear: that most of us are closer to the edge than we might like to think. For Shapiro, that fear is triggered when her husband “let things slide” while working on a movie. “Bills piled up. I trusted he knew what he was doing. Then our Writers Guild health insurance lapsed, and he didn’t tell me.” On their way to couples therapy, Shapiro sees “an elderly homeless woman pushing a cart filled with all her worldly belongings.” Shapiro wonders about the series of events that led this woman to live on the street. Could she, too, end up homeless? Your fear may be different, but we all have a version of it, our own worst-case scenarios.
Ultimately, Hourglass was everything I’d hoped it would be, and it left me wishing there were more memoirs about marriages-in-progress. We need a wide range of stories spanning different socioeconomic classes, regions of the country, and sexual identities. It is worthwhile to celebrate marriages that endure and we can also learn from them. It is said that “you never know what’s really going on in someone else’s marriage.” That may be true, but Shapiro provides an intimate glimpse, revealing that while the details vary, universal truths can be applied to all long-term relationships. Here is my favorite truth from her book: “The stumbles and falls; the lapses in judgment; the near misses; the could-haves. I’ve become convinced that our lives are shaped less by the mistakes we make than when we make them. There is less elasticity now. Less time to bounce back.”