by Jen Moyers (@jen.loves.books)
Signal Fires is a book about possibility—both the ever-presence of possibility in the course of people's lives but also the ways that decisions can narrow those possibilities. It's about the ways that we understand the people who are around us and how they shape our own lives, the ways that we're all interconnected.
In Shapiro's Acknowledgments, she includes "A special shout-out to Jennifer Egan, who suggested to me over a decade ago that chronology of any sort is boring" (225). That unpinning from chronology results here in a book that moves forward and backward in time, considering both the events leading up to a single action and the events that result from it.
The single action most in question is the death of a teenager in 1985, which begins the book. When Misty dies due to a series of bad decisions made by her teenage neighbors, Sarah and Theo Wilf, her death ripples out, reshaping the way the Wilf family understands all that came before and all that will result.
Sarah and Theo and their parents, Ben and Mimi, live in a small neighborhood on the East Coast where they know everyone, part of an intimate community that acts as an extended family for a while. After Misty's death, the Wilfs become unmoored from the neighborhood, which also begins changing, less a unit that a grouping of disconnected families.
And yet, there's still connection. In the 90s, the Shenkmans move into the community, bringing Shenkman and Alice and—eventually—their son Waldo into the orbit of the Wilfs and reshaping the way their lives unfold.
Because Signal Fires spirals both through time—from 1985 to 2010, then to 1999 and back to 1985 again—and through different characters' lenses, I felt as if I was constantly moving both toward and away from understanding the characters at the book's center. Just as I thought I had someone figured out, something would complicate that understanding.
The book addresses a vast array of life events—addiction and dementia, affairs and scandals, kindnesses and cruelties. Through them all we see two families who are, ultimately, trying to do better for each other and often failing but always, always loving each other even when they don't know how to show it.
One of my favorite relationships in the book is the strange friendship between Waldo Shenkman and Ben Wilf who first really connect when Waldo is 10 and Ben is preparing to move to an assisted living facility. Their conversations covering the stars and life and death are, for me, the heart of the novel.
"This"—Ben sweeps his arm out as if indicating an ancient, lost civilization—"is all going to disappear before too long." "It won't disappear," Waldo says. . . . "If only time could be seen whole, then you could see the past remaining intact, instead of vanishing in the rearview mirror" (214).
I've read Shapiro's memoirs before (I highly recommend Inheritance!), and her fiction delivers the same beautiful writing, the same compassion, the same thought-provoking questions that I enjoyed in her nonfiction.
I can't recommend Signal Fires enough.
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