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 book: The Divorce Papers