The Immortalists

How long do you expect to live?  Chloe Benjamin uses the theory of expectations to deliver a compellng family saga of four siblings who visit a fortune teller after their father dies at forty-five. When the clairvoyant names the dates they will die, predicting a short life for the younger two, middle-age for the oldest son, and a long life for the eldest daughter, each designs a life destined to fulfill the phropecy.

Each life is revealed separately, weaving in  the circumstances of the others over fifty years. Simon, the youngest, drops out of high school to escape to San Francisco in the nineteen eighties with his sister, an aspiring magician.  Knowing he will die young, he adopts a reckless gay lifestyle leading to devastating consequences.

The deaths of the two middle children seem contrived with both dying on their appointed days, but Benjamin reveals her message with Vy, the eldest and longest living, who works as a researcher for a pharmaceutical firm developing a longevity formula.  To live to her predicted 88 yesrs, Vy has severely limited her caloric intake and avoids physical contact, suffers from an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and lives in fear. An observer of her life comments she may be surviving but she is not living.

I remember a line from a movie with Tom Hanks asking the spy who is about to be sentenced why he is not worried.  The spy answers: “Would it help (to worry)?”  What will happen will happen. What would you do if you knew the date of your death? Would you try to change your life’s trajectory or worry as the date drew near?

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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

Saints for All Occasions

9780307959577_p0_v6_s192x300  J. Courtney Sullivan’s Saints for All Occasions features two Irish sisters immigrated from Ireland.  One joins a cloistered convent; the other marries and raises the nun’s out-of-wedlock son.  Although their lives seem predictable, Sullivan uses their strict upbringing and their personal struggles to create a family saga across generations.

The story begins with the death of Patrick, eldest son, but his place within the family is quickly absorbed into the estranged relationship of the two sisters. As the story moves between the present and the past, Sullivan follows the sisters as they travel by ship to their new world, and teases the reader with their future lives.  Despite the long descriptions and the choppy dialogue, I kept reading to find out how their lives developed.  How did Theresa become a nun?  How did she get to Vermont? How did Nora have so many children when she had not consummated her marriage after two years?  Sullivan posing possibilities by her glimpses into their future, constantly opening new doors for her characters.

The title refers to a collection of holy cards Nora has kept in a box.  I remember my grandmother’s – bespoke cards for specific requests with the saint’s picture on one side and the prayer of entreaty on the other.  Some have entered popular culture – pray to St. Jude for the impossible or St. Anthony for lost items, but St. Monica as the patron saint for mothers of difficult children was new to me. The cards also include commemorations of the dead, usually distributed at a funeral. I have a stack of those bequeathed to me – some of relatives I barely remember.

For those of us who grew up in the Catholic religion of old and watched as it morphed into modernity, then was crippled by the exposure of priests’ crimes, Sullivan’s references will make a connection.  As the book ended, I wanted more  and realized I had become immersed in the characters’ lives.

Related Review: Maine

This Was a Man – The Final Volume of the Clifton Chronicles

9781250061638_p0_v6_s192x300  With the same fast-paced intensity as the six books leading up to this final entry in The Clifton Chronicles,  Jeffrey Archer’s This Was a Man leads the reader back to the family saga of the Barringtons and the Cliftons.  Although the last two books included my name ( a result of winning a contest), this final volume has no Ph.D. with good advice.  The main characters do return, and Archer successfully reminds the reader of past adventures but it would be easier to binge read all the books together – if you could.

Cunard has bought out the Barrington ocean liners, Harry has been knighted, and Margaret Thatcher is in office, with Emma newly appointed to championing a health care bill. Villains return too, with Lady Virginia artfully and greedily worming her evil through the scenes.

Archer skillfully addresses each family member in the line, providing successful outcomes as their lives continue to develop and interact.  Despite the novel’s length and the complications of following a number of characters across dissecting story lines, Archer has the unique ability to maintain clarity, helping the reader follow with anticipation and sometimes with empathy, as he weaves his storytelling drama across generations.

The character Harry Clifton offers an undeniable clue to the ending of Archer’s last volume – it really is the end –  and Archer uses his last pages to revisit highlights of his previous six novels.   The family saga is over.  But maybe it will reappear someday as a modern Forsythe Saga in a BBC special drama series.  I would welcome it to my Sunday nights.

Leave Me by Gayle Forman

9781616206178_p0_v5_s192x300 Where would you go to escape? Pittsburgh would not be my first choice if I were running away from my life – maybe a small village in Provence would draw me in.  In Gayle Forman’s first novel for adults, Leave Me, her main character, Maribeth Klein, decamps to an empty apartment near Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania.

The premise is familiar – a harried supermom juggling career and children decides she needs space to find herself again.  Forman adds a heart attack and preschool twins to the drama as well as the tangent of Maribeth’s search for her birth mother.  While many of Maribeth’s solutions may seem convenient and unbelievable – a ready amount of cash withdrawn from the bank, a handsome doctor to help her recuperate, a landlord who rents month to month with no references or credit check – her angst and desire to leave it all ring true.

Although the plot seems formulaic, Forman manages to touch a nerve familiar to everyone who has just had enough, and offers some wisdom with her humor.  Thankfully, all ends well and Maribeth finds her mojo again.  A quick read and a nice distraction, Leave Me reminded me of  Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years – not as good, but just as entertaining.  Amazingly, Tyler’s book is on my shelf, so I may reread it and vicariously escape again.