The Heirs

9781101904718_p0_v2_s192x300    Despite the familiar theme of a surprising revelation after the patriarch of the family dies – that he had another secret family – Susan Rieger’s The Heirs offers a unique spin.  The Heirs tells the saga of a family jockeying to maintain their individual dignity and struggling to sustain their family loyalty.

Six months after Rupert dies, his widow, Eleanor, opens a letter with a dated picture of him with another woman and two children, claiming rights of inheritance.  Eleanor, is surprisingly willing to disperse some of the family wealth to them.  Rieger goes further, planting doubt over the whether Rupert actually fathered the five sons in his long marriage with Eleanor.

The surprise of Rupert’s secret life is more shocking to his grown sons, all Princeton graduates, and now all successful as a doctor, lawyer, writer, MacArthur genius and musician.  Since the body has been cremated and Eleanor has had their apartment scoured of any trace of her former husband, DNA testing seems impossible, feeding the dilemma of discovering the truth.

Although the story may seem, at first, to be yet another formulaic tale, Rieger breaks from reader’s expectations; the sharp civilized tone with a sprinkling of Classic allusions reveals characters as more human than expected. With a cast of characters including five legitimate sons, their wives and lovers, and parents Eleanor and Rupert with their line of  disenchanted or rejected lovers, added to the possibility of two more illegitimate sons, the plot lines can get a little crowded.  But just as she manages her own life, her husband’s, and the whirl of five boys to men, Eleanor, Vassar educated, smooth and serene on the outside, smoldering inside, directs the action.   As Eleanor’s past is revealed through a series of flashbacks, her reticence becomes clear.

Rupert, despite being abandoned as a baby, has led a charmed life. After being adopted by the priest who administered the orphanage, he received scholarships to prestigious schools, eventually graduating from Cambridge, and later accidentally sitting next to Yale’s Dean of Law on the train to visit the campus and subsequently receiving a full scholarship to attend.  He marries into a rich American family and carves a successful career at a prominent law firm.  But now that he is dead, his insecurities and passions come to the fore.  Rieger cleverly connects his past to his present, explaining his idiosyncrasies.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, slowly revealing childhood fears and successes, proclivities leading to careers or life styles, and lovers who feed or threaten to destroy the family’s equilibrium.  Although complicated and intertwined, their stories are easy to follow as Rieger constantly rewrites what the reader knows about each.  Love seems to be the underlying emotion; however, the truth is often missing.

Jason Sheehan summed up the book in his review for National Public Radio (NPR):

Love and sex and money and betrayal make for excellent storytelling. And The Heirs has all of that in excess. As an exploration of the hidden lives of Rupert and Eleanor Falkes, it is a posh soap opera written by Fitzgerald and the Brontes. As a window on a family shaken by death, it is The Royal Tenenbaums, polished up and moved across town…But its beauty, economy and expensive wit is all its own.

The story ends with yet another letter and surprise for Eleanor.  She quips, “I want a designated mail opener, someone like the king’s food taster…”

Review of Another Susan Rieger bookThe Divorce Papers

The Total Solar Eclipse

Where will you be on the morning of August 21st as the sun becomes a dark hole with a ring of fire in the sky? 

References to an eclipse appear throughout literature; novelists and poets have used the event as inspiration and, at times, an omen. Stephen King uses an eclipse as a foil in the murder plot of his horror story Delores Claiborne. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt sees an eclipse the night before he leaves for America as either a sign of good fortune or a curse.
Shakespeare wove the ghostly image into Othello’s cry of despair, after strangling Desdemona:

O insupportable! O heavy hour! / Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon; and that the affrighted globe / Should yawn at alteration’ –

Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote a poem, immortalizing the solar eclipse event of 1820:

High on her speculative Tower
Stood Science waiting for the Hour
When Sol was destined to endure
That darkening of his radiant face
Which Superstition strove to chase…

As the total eclipse approaches America, Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, wrote an essay for the New York Times – Among Others: A Total Eclipse is a Lesson in the Surprising Beauty of the Human Throng.  As someone who has witnessed three total eclipses, the last in Turkey, Macdonald offers her perspective on their value for humanity, especially Americans.

“The event this August has been called the Great American Eclipse, and it seems to me to chime with the country’s current struggles: between reason and unreason, individuality and crowd consciousness, belonging and difference. The most distressing present day crowds are those whose politics are built from fear and outrage against otherness.  They are entities that define themselves by virtue of what they are against. Yet the simple fact about an eclipse crowd is that it cannot work in this way.  Confronting something like the absolute, all our differences are moot. When you stand and watch the death of the sun and see it reborn, there can be not them, only us.”

Being present in the moments of the eclipse carries different expectations for those who participate.  Some may be inspired, others in awe, a few will be frantically recording data.  I attended a lecture at the local university, listening to the excitement of the professor’s expectations for the scientific knowledge to be gained in the few seconds revealing the activity of the sun’s corona.  Someone in one of my book clubs is making the trek to the mainland to watch the eclipse as it starts its descent across the United States from near Portland, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina.

TSE2016-Totality-RickFienberg-s  Helen Macdonald suggests being physically present to see the sudden blackening of the sky and the stars shining during the day is an experience “provoking the overwhelming recognition of human mortality.”  But she also suggests – whether or not you are present – the moment of the eclipse offers a chance for the world to be remade – rebooted and restored – a call to “set {the world} to rights.”  

 What a phenomenon that would be.

 

 

The Language of Flowers

Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, in her recent interview for the New York Times “By the Book,” suggested that a sign of a good book is one that makes you feel an emotion so deeply, you might be angry with the characters.  She identified Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers as such a book.

“At one point {I was} so mad at the main character, I had to remind myself, ‘Carla, this is fiction.’  But when that happens, you know a story has you hooked.”

9780345525550_p0_v1_s192x300  I identified with Hayden’s description of authors who evoke emotion; recently someone asked why I connected to favorite authors like Anita Shreve, Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, and others.  I look for their books as soon as they are published, often pre-ordering and reading the book as soon as I can download it.  Getting lost in a story, living through the characters, being in another place for a while – sometimes forgetting the story is fiction – all make reading the book so pleasurable.  I’ve read The Language of Flowers, but, like so many books I’ve read, I could not remember the plot, characters, details…  Luckily, my review jogged my memory.

Read my review here.

Diffenbaugh has written another since her first novel in 2011.  She addresses another social issue in We Never Asked for Wings; 32871-v1-197x   it centers on a Mexican-American family headed by Letty, a mother struggling to make a life for her two children in a crumbling housing development outside of San Francisco.  Although written in 2014, the story seems eerily timely.  Have you read it?

What authors “hook” you into their stories?  What books make you forget you are reading fiction?

 

Do Not Become Alarmed

shopping-3Maile Meloy hooked me with her Apothecary series for young adults; when Meloy’s fellow Guggenheim winner, Ann Patchett, praised Do Not Be Alarmed, the book became my next must read. Unfortunately, I started the book late at night and pulled my first all-nighter in a long time to finish it. I just couldn’t put it down.

If you’ve cruised to the Panama Canal and toured the Central American countries along the way, you will immediately connect with the venue. When three families decide to explore one of the ports of call – what seems like Costa Rica (although Meloy does not actually name it), their lives are traumatized and changed forever. The husbands take advantage of a golf club connection to spend the day on the links and the three wives with children ranging from six to fifteen hire Pedro, a handsome young local, to drive them to ziplining through the trees. When Pedro’s vehicle gets a flat tire, the plot takes the turn from happy vacation to danger.

The parents’ interpersonal issues offer some relief to the constant terrors the children face, from drug-dealing kidnappers to hungry crocodiles. Meloy manages to feed their helplessness and shows a range of ways people deal with threat.  But it’s the children who captured my attention, from 6 year old June who worries about her bunny, eight year old diabetic Sebastian who will not survive without his insulin, fourteen year old Isabel blooming into adolescence, and calm centered eleven year old Marcus. My favorite was Penny, an eleven year old who reminded me of Reese Witherspoon in her perspicacious role as a teenager in the movie “Election.”

Do Not Become Alarmed is a thrill ride; the ending brings all the strings together as almost an afterthought. And you wonder what kind of lives they will all have, especially the children, years later when their misery catches up with them.

If you liked Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Meloy’s Do Not Become Alarmed will give you the same thrilling yet thoughtful experience. You may find it as impossible to put down as I did.

 

Read my review of The Apothecary –  here

Commonwealth Reboot

shopping-2   I don’t like rereading books; I’d rather spend the time with a new story, but Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth was an exception.  Exploring the depths of Commonwealth’s complicated family and the catalysts changing their lives gave me a better understanding of the story’s structure with its underlying conceits, and a new respect for Ann Patchett’s writing talent.

In preparing for the book club discussion, I researched the author.  I was already familiar with her other books; this time I looked for her background as a way of connecting with her own family references in this book, and I found a few to share at the book club.  I always like book lists and authors who inspire writers, and in my meanderings I found Ann Patchett offered some new possibilities.

Because Patchett mentioned her friendship with Jacqueline Woodson, four time winner of the Newbery Award, I listened to an online podcast at the Free Library of Philadelphia with both authors discussing Patchett’s Commonwealth and Woodson’s Another Brooklyn.  The podcast is a one hour discussion with Patchett and Woodson reading from their books.  In the publisher’s excerpt, childhood memory is the common element – how the  memory of childhood events differs, according to the age of the child experiencing it.

For the New York Times “By the Book,” Patchett named Saul Bellow, the winner of the Nobel, Pulitzer, and National Book Awards, as one of her favorite authors, as well as Doris Kearns Goodwin, award winning author and historian.  In the podcast she also offers a number of her favorite books from Charlotte’s Web to The Witches of Blackbird Pond to A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, When Breath Becomes Air, The Underground Railroad, and more.  She has a monthly blog talking about her favorite books at “Ann’s Blog”

As a result of  rediscovering Ann Patchett,  I am now reading:

  • Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn
  • Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift
  • Henry James’ The Ambassadors
  • Matthew Desmond’s Evicted

Through the interviews I learned more about Patchett, the person.  She’s warm and funny and real – someone I would enjoy meeting for coffee.  Maybe I will someday, if I ever get to Tennessee.

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