A family grows apart, then shows growth

By DeWitt Henry
February 3, 2011

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Adam Schwartz’s masterful and richly textured Bildungsroman is told in eight sections, each of which depicts a stage in the first-person narrator’s search for identity, from age 12 to age 48. Seth Shapiro, intelligent, ironic, literary, Jewish, and middle-class, is a child of divorce. He, his twin sister, Sarah, and younger brother, Seamus, live with Ruth, their mother, with whom Seth and Sarah have an ambivalent relationship.

Ruth met Seth’s father at NYU. “In the seventh year of their marriage, my father made an important medical discovery that gilded his career. . . . He was an overnight star and left my mother for a young woman from France.’’ Afterward, young Seth witnesses Ruth’s dating “bland, thoroughly second-rate men,’’ one of whom she marries, only to divorce him four months later. For Seth and Sarah, Ruth becomes “the main topic of our lives: her madness, her habits, her demands, her crude, sad, and comic life.’’

Success and failure haunt both Seth and his mother, both of whom still love his father, who will not love them back. Seth writes a story in imitation of Saul Bellow that wins first prize in a national high school short story contest and is admitted to the University of Chicago. There he meets Rachel, the star literature student. They read Tolstoy together in bed. At her urging, he takes a workshop and writes his best story, “A Stranger on the Planet,’’ using details from Rachel’s family’s past as objective correlatives for his own. The story wins a prize and is accepted for the Chicago Review, but Rachel feels violated: “[H]ow could she not understand the process of how an author transforms life into art?’’ he asks himself. As a result, he and Rachel break up; also after Ruth reads the story and writes him that “it was still painful for me to see my faults so exposed,’’ Seth withdraws it from publication and never writes again.

More haps and mishaps follow. Seth finishes a doctorate in divinity at Chicago, while also teaching grammar in a mostly black community college. He moves to Cambridge, where he performs as a stand-up comic, and magically attracts the love of his life, Molly, from his audience. They marry, but their relationship falls apart after Molly’s miscarriage and their failure to have a baby. However, Molly helps Seth to find a stable career in teaching literature at a private high school. Years later, he will meet her by chance, when she is remarried and in the process of adopting a baby from China.

In the end, Sarah is happily married and pregnant. Their younger brother, an Orthodox rabbi, has two daughters. Before Ruth dies of cancer, Seth tells her that she was a good mother; and in the book’s climatic scene, at her 60th birthday party, defends her life to her rich and condescending older sister: “She raised three children. She’s taught hundreds of other children to read. She’s loving and generous. She has friends who value her. But all you . . . ever do is treat her like her life is one big embarrassment.’’ If parenting has been Ruth’s success, Seth himself despairs of ever parenting; however, after Ruth’s death, he reaches out to his brother’s daughter, and for her bat mitzvah sends her his mother’s books and a copy of his story, “a story about our family, a story about longing for solace and connection with something that’s been lost.’’

DeWitt Henry’s new memoir is “Sweet Dreams: A Family History.’’ He teaches at Emerson College and can be reached at


Soho, 291 pp., $24