“Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years.” This Fiddler on the Roof lyric is exactly the kind of misty-eyed lens through which Shapiro’s Miriam Bluestein loves to cast her life. Growing up in a Boston suburb in the 1940s, Miriam often pretends to be a character in a play, a lifelong habit that helps her escape troublesome realities including: being rejected by her mother and estranged from her father; the monstrous anti-Semitism raging in Europe and its more genteel cousin at home, where Miriam’s high school drama teacher refuses to let “Jewesses” perform; and the fear she feels as a young bride when she finds herself alone in the bedroom with her handsome new husband, Curly Gold.
Miriam is faulted—sometimes ridiculed—by Curly, and eventually her children, for being so fanciful. But her rose-coloured glasses often serve the family well. Despite her difficulties with intimacy, she cozies up to Curly at the drive-in, singing songs from Guys and Dolls and The Best Things in Life Are Free while he holds her tight. Rather than be wounded by her daughter’s near-indifference to their relationship, Miriam looks on the bright side: Julie is self-possessed, focused. And while she pushes her middle son, Ethan, much too hard to make something of his musical talent, she is surprisingly accepting of the quirkiness of her youngest son, Sam, who, as a child, refused to cut his food, told inappropriate jokes and spent all his money on strange hats.
Miriam never realizes her own dream of standing on a big stage beneath bright lights, but her days brim with more drama than any three-act play could accommodate—teenage sons who still wet the bed, a complicated but ultimately decent marriage, a daughter who is somehow out of reach. In his first novel, Shapiro (who is best known as a prize-winning poet) shows a keen and affectionate eye for the inherent tragedy and comedy in family life. Miriam is often a controlling, stubborn mother who embarrasses her children, but she also makes them laugh and her love is unconditional. As parents go, you could do a lot worse.