Like Dani Shapiro’s other novels and memoirs (most recently, Inheritance), Signal Fires is at its heart a family story, told in the gorgeous, evocative language she’s known for.
The novel opens on an August night in 1985 Avalon, a pleasant New York suburb, with three teenagers (“good kids—everyone would say so”) in a car. At the wheel is 15-year-old Theo Wilf, who doesn’t yet have his license, and next to him is Misty Zimmerman, the girl he likes. In the back seat is Sarah, Theo’s 17-year-old sister. What should be a mere summertime joyride becomes a deadly accident, and although Sarah and Theo’s doctor father, Ben, is on the scene only a few minutes later, their family’s reality has already shifted. “Change one thing and everything changes,” Shapiro writes, indicating one of Signal Fires’ preoccupations: how one moment of trauma, added to one secret, will reverberate throughout multiple lives.
The story shifts to a night in December 2010, when a much older Ben, his children long grown, notices that Waldo Shenkman, a boy who lives across the street, is still up, too late for a kid to be awake. Both are lonely—Benjamin’s wife, Mimi, has advanced dementia, and Waldo has trouble making friends—and the two connect over Waldo’s love of the constellations, which he views on his dad’s iPad.
Signal Fires’ narrative is a fractured, prismatic one, moving mostly among these characters (Sarah, Theo, Ben, young Waldo and Waldo’s dad, known to the reader as Shenkman) and through time (forward to 2020, back to 2010, further back to 1985, up to 1999 and forward again), unraveling these characters’ mistakes and yearnings. Sarah and Theo have grown up and built successful careers, but both are inwardly roiling, estranged from themselves and from each other. And Shenkman, feeling an imposter in his own life, is alienating his wife and son.
Shapiro keeps the plates spinning, bouncing between time periods while moving the story forward, landing on key moments like New Year’s Eve 1999, a point of change and connection in the Shenkman and Wilf families. The novel’s narrative occasionally moves into a mystical mode, which feels a little out of place, but Signal Fires is mainly a meditation on families—the secrets we keep, the hurts we don’t mean to inflict—and how those secrets and hurts play out over time. And the novel’s action keeps pointing back to suburban Avalon, a place that both families call home for a time, making Signal Fires a bittersweet love letter to the suburbs.