Dani Shapiro

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"Black and White"

(Reviewed by Lori Lamothe SEP 14, 2008)

Black and White by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro's Black & White explores the damage a mother can inflict upon her daughter when she uses her to fulfill her own needs. In one sense this is a simple story: mother photographs child and becomes famous, child-turned-adult flees in search of her own identity, child returns to confront dying mother. A less skilled writer might buckle to the demands of pop culture and give us little more than a literary soap opera, or perhaps a jolt of artsy reality lit. For the most part, Shapiro avoids this and gives us a well-crafted story that raises important questions about the role of the parent, as well as the role of the artist.

At the outset of the novel Clara Brodeur has returned to Manhattan after a 14-year absence to see her mother, Ruth Dunne, whose reputation rests primarily on a controversial series of nude photographs of Clara. Despite the fact that Ruth is dying of cancer, she has changed very little over the years: she is still the imperious, selfish woman who was willing to sacrifice her daughter's childhood in the name of art. When Clara thinks of her past, all she can recall is the succession of photographs that now hang in museums and art galleries around the world. "All of it, her history, gleams—perfectly lit, silvery—in the darkened and cobwebbed corners of her mind. Each image is a looking glass into which she can disappear—like her favorite childhood heroine Alice—until she finds herself on the other side."

In an effort to escape the mirror-image self that has displaced the person she really is (or could become) Clara has moved to an island off the coast of Maine. Yet despite her happy life there – complete with loving husband and nine-year-old daughter – Clara has never truly confronted her past. Now, as her mother's image dissolves before her, she is forced to examine her relationship not only with Ruth, but with her sister and her daughter as well. As the narrative shifts deftly between past and present, the reader sees Ruth's photographs from the viewpoint of their subject. Clara's perspective is as stark as the title suggests: the beauty of the photos—Clara with the Lizard, Clara in the Fountain, Naked at Fourteen—gives way to the harsher light of truth. Ruth spent her career photographing her daughter's outward demeanor; Clara gives us a picture of the girl trapped on the other side of the silver. At times, I wanted to know more about Ruth: What drove her to sacrifice her daughter in this way? What regrets did she have? But this isn't Ruth's story; it's Clara's.

Loosely based on the life and work of Sally Mann, Black & White is an engrossing psychological study of parent-child relationships, as well as the boundaries between creating art and exploiting a child (the recent fracas involving Miley Cyrus comes to mind). At one point Ruth tries to justify her actions, telling Clara, "It's my work. It's not about you—it was never about you." Clara doesn't buy the glib explanation: "Of course it's about me—it is me!" In the end, Shapiro blurs the black and white of these two perspectives, leaving us with a more nuanced understanding of both mother and daughter.
However, Shapiro could have gone farther in this direction. The ending seemed too pat, almost to the point of made-for-tv-movie predictability. Would Clara really act as she does in the final chapter? Would Ruth have been tempermentally capable of making the choice Shapiro has her make? Yet despite the fact that the ending stretches plausibility, the merits of the novel make it worth reading. Shapiro's writing is sharp, elegant and extremely visual; her ability to compose a scene is impressive. The images, particularly those that center on Ruth's sessions with her young daughter, are intense, finely wrought and provocative. I have the feeling they will stay with me long after the details of the plot have faded.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 21 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Black and White at Random House

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About the Author:

Dani ShapiroDani Shapiro went to high school at The Pingry School, a prep school in New Jersey. She attended Sarah Lawrence College, where she was influenced by having Grace Paley as a teacher. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Bookforum, Oprah, Ploughshares, among others, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. Her books have been translated into seven languages.

She is a visiting writer at Wesleyan University and a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure.

She lives with her husband and young son in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

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