In this luminous and poignant novel, the many unexpected forces that define and shape families are deftly explored.
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One Night. One Fateful Choice. A Constellation of Lives Changed Forever.
Signal Fires opens on a summer night in 1985. Three teenagers have been drinking. One of them gets behind the wheel of a car, and, in an instant, everything on Division Street changes. Each of their lives, and that of Ben Wilf, a young doctor who arrives on the scene, is shattered. For the Wilf family, the circumstances of that fatal accident will become the deepest kind of secret, one so dangerous it can never be spoken.
On Division Street, time has moved on. When the Shenkmans arrive—a young couple expecting a baby boy—it is as if the accident never happened. But when Waldo, the Shenkmans’ brilliant, lonely son who marvels at the beauty of the world and has a native ability to find connections in everything, befriends Dr. Wilf, now retired and struggling with his wife’s decline, past events come hurtling back in ways no one could ever have foreseen.
Sarah and Theo
And it’s nothing, really, or might be nothing, or ought to be nothing, as he leans his head forward to press the tip of his cigarette to the car’s lighter. It sizzles on contact, a sound particular to its brief moment in history, in which cars have lighters and otherwise sensible fifteen-year-olds choke down Marlboro Reds and drive their mothers’ Buicks without so much as a learner’s permit. There’s a girl he wants to impress. Her name is Misty Zimmerman, and if she lives through this night, she will grow up to be a magazine editor, or a high school teacher, or a defense lawyer. She will be a mother of three or remain childless. She will die young of ovarian cancer or live to know her great-grandchildren.
But these are only a few possible arcs to a life, a handful of shooting stars in the night sky. Change one thing and everything changes. A tremor here sets off an earthquake there. A fault line deepens. A wire gets tripped. His foot on the gas. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but that won’t stop him. He’s all jacked up just like a fifteen-year-old boy. He has something to prove. To himself. To Misty. To his sister. It’s as if he’s following a script written in Braille, his fingers running across code he doesn’t understand.
“Theo, slow down.” That’s his sister, Sarah, from the backseat.
Misty’s riding shotgun.
It was Sarah who tossed him the keys to their mom’s car. Sarah, age seventeen. After this night, she will become unknowable to him. The summer sky is a veil thrown over the moon and stars. The streets are quiet, the good people of Avalon long since tucked in for the night. Their own parents are asleep in their queen-size bed under the plaid afghan knitted by one of their father’s patients. His mom is a deep sleeper, but his dad has been trained by a lifetime as a doctor to bolt awake at the slightest provocation. He is always ready.
The teenagers aren’t looking for trouble. They’re good kids—everyone would say so. But they’re bored; it’s the end of summer; school will resume next week. Sarah’s going into her senior year, after which she’ll be gone. She’s a superstar, his sister. Varsity this, honors that. Bristling with potential. Theo has three years left, and he’s barely made a mark. He’s a chubby kid whose default is silence and shame. He blushes easily. He can feel his cheeks redden as he holds the lighter and inhales, hears the sizzle, draws smoke deep into his lungs. His father—a pulmonary surgeon—would kill him. Maybe that’s why Sarah threw him the keys. Maybe she’s trying to help—to get him to act, goddamnit. To take a risk. Better to be bad than to be nothing.
Why I love it
Mary Laura Philpott
Author, Bomb Shelter
Signal Fires is a crowd-pleaser, by which I mean there are so many ways for every manner of reader to enjoy this novel. There’s the unforgettable story of the Wilf and Shenkman families, which grabs your heart from the first page and never lets go. There are the sentences, which spin ordinary words into golden threads of gorgeous imagery. And there are the profoundly moving observations about how certain before-and-after moments echo throughout our lifetimes and beyond.
This book enchanted me. Something undeniably mystical seems to be at work in the way the characters connect with one another. Time and again, split-second decisions cause rippling effects across the lives of family, friends, and neighbors for years to come. It will make you look at your own life and think about how the past is never really past, and how maybe there’s no such thing as a total stranger.
For longtime fans of Dani Shapiro’s writing, her return to fiction will feel like a culmination of so many fertile themes she has explored in her memoirs: family, faith, fate, choice, and consequence. It’s fun to see what happens when she pours all that thinking into a novel-shaped container. If Signal Fires is your first exposure to Shapiro’s storytelling, well, lucky you! This is a lovely place to start.
Member ratings (1,969)
So good! Incredible writing, compelling story. I felt each character’s pain. Thanks again to BOTM for introducing me to another great author. Looking forward to reading more from her back catalogue.
Oof. This book is short, but each page is filled with beautiful, moving, emotionally heavy words. I felt this book was less about any specific story, but about how every story is intertwined. 5 stars!
Bean Station, TN
There was so much about this book that I loved. The life-long connections made by a neighboring Doctor and the child he helped enter the world under difficult circumstances, and their family's lives.
Valdosta , GA
Two families living in an upscale neighborhood near NYC. Their points of view shift as does the year throughout the narrative but keeping track is easy. Redemptive and poignant. Loved Waldo & the Dr.
Beautiful story of how past, present, and future can collide and affect each other in so many more ways than any of us realize. And how one small decision or mistake can create a completely new path