Tag Archives: family relationships

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

Leaving Lucy Pear

9781101981764_p0_v1_s192x300  Anna Solomon’s sad tale of a baby left in an orchard in Leaving Lucy Pear has a cast of characters whose lives relate to her desertion in a little village in Cape Ann, Massachusetts in 1917.  I had expected only a version of the same theme I had read in other books – The Forgotten Garden, Light on Snow, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and many more, but Solomon’s book holds its own with an underlying struggle of classes driving the classic redemption of the lost child.

Lucy is a minor character as the story begins with her under a pear tree, left by her wealthy teenage mother unwilling to give her up to a strict Jewish orphanage,  and found by a poor Irish family stealing the pears. Solomon evokes admiration for the tough Irish Emma, whose drunk fisherman husband is only home long enough to make her pregnant every year and pity for Bea, the lonely teenager who became pregnant after one assignation with a handsome naval officer.  Solomon does not alternate chapters on the mothers, as expected, but slowly reveals each of the mother’s lives through a series of related characters as well as their past and present, as she skips though the years.

Ten years after leaving her baby in a pear orchard, Bea, has grown into a women’s rights and Prohibition advocate, married to a handsome Boston banker.  She lives in Cape Ann with her aging Uncle Ira in an imposing house near the pear orchard.  Josiah, married into wealth on the island and hoping to gain Bea’s endorsement for mayor, arranges to have Emma, now a mother of nine children with her husband at sea, to care for Ira.  Emma recognizes Bea as the mother of Lucy but Bea does not learn of Lucy’s new home until much later in the story.

Solomon adds political and class story lines as she addresses the parallel lives of the mothers.  The famous trial of Sacco and Vanzetti punctuates the plot in an underlying voice accusing both the wealthy land owners – the outsiders on the Cape – and the poor working class locals. Ira’s brother, who is a successful shoe manufacturer changed his Jewish name to one better suited to the Protestant New England upper class, while his wife,  Bea’s mother, is a pitiful pretender at the country club, overdressing and fracturing her vocabulary as she tries to fit in.   She later becomes the catalyst for a strange twist of fate I did not see coming.

As the characters grow into their lives, Soloman slyly dismisses the reader’s assumptions about their motivations, revealing surprising yet reasonable secrets protecting their characters’ flaws.  Emma’s risks in having an affair with Josiah, Bea’s selfless crusades to protect her fragile ego, Albert’s steadfastness despite his yearning, Lucy’s disguising herself in a boy’s clothing – all eventually merge into revelations.

As I read, I found myself googling Sacco and Vanzetti, their trial, its effects, their execution, and much later vindication by Gov. Michael Dukakis.  I looked for Cape Ann, not as popular as Cape Cod, at the other end of the half moon of land off the coast of Massachusetts.  I wondered about the pears and found orchards still producing, with aged cinnamon pear vinegar and Stone Ruination Ale.

Lucy is almost a minor character in the plot, but has grown into a feisty and capable girl.  The ending brings her full circle to face both mothers.  Hints of her final decision, as she tries to manage the pull of both mothers, may be predictable and hopeful, but no less sad for an independent ten year old.  I’m hoping for a sequel to follow Lucy as she grows into womanhood.

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Elena Ferrante

After resisting Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books for so long, I finally read the first – My Brilliant Friend – for an upcoming book club discussion. As with the Hunger Games series, after reading the first book, I skipped to the last, interested more in how the characters lives were resolved than how they got there.

It’s no spoiler to state one of the two women who drives Ferrante’s first book disappears, nor to note the other is writing about their lives; this begins  My Brilliant Friend – before backtracking to their lives as young girls who become best friends in Naples. With a cast of characters who all live in the neighborhood, the first book curiously ends either as a cliffhanger for the next book or as a despondant resolution for women of that era – depending on whether you see the book as a soap opera tale or a feminist cautionary note.

The last book – The Story of the Lost Child – on the shortlist for the 2016 International Man Booker prize, offers more introspection and additional wry skepticism of how intelligent women fare in the world, but it’s ending and that of the series, reawakened my interest in the author’s identity. Not so much who she is but how she could manage to hide who she is so well.

I had agreed with her statement in an earlier interview about a book being received based on its own merit, regardless of the author’s background, training, or education – an anomoly in today’s literature where the author’s credentials often drive the interest in the book. But I was reminded of a comment by Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian, who said people would come to see him because of his name but would leave after ten minutes if he did not deliver funny lines. Ferrante delivers with her story of a complicated friendship, with her commentary on the effects of politics, social norms, traditions and expectations, and with the flowing language evident despite the translation from Italian.

But why hide? Suddenly, I remembered the conceit in Stockett’s book “The Help.” An incident (contents of the pie) known to be true could never be acknowledged without revealing the embarrassment of the receiver. If fiction follows truth, would the real Lila who had threatened to erase her friend’s hard drive if she ever dared to reveal their lives, ever acknowledge knowing the author? If the author’s identity was revealed, an immediate pursuit of her background would follow, with speculation on others in the book. Authors often say their characters are fictional amalgams of many – but not always.

On the other hand, the solution could be simpler. The real friend is really dead and cannot speak out – or better yet, the story is entirely fiction – a clever vehicle for the author to make statements about the plight of women. I like the last conjecture the best.

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

The Miniaturist

37-Petronella-Oortmans-dolls-house-Rijksmuseum-Amsterdam_grande

Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse on display at the Rijksmuseum

Using a cabinet currently on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam built in the late 17th century to replicate Petronella Oortman’s luxurious townhouse in the center of the city, Jesse Burton creates a tale around a poor eighteen year old girl in an arranged marriage to a wealthy Dutch merchant in The Miniaturist.

As Nella struggles to find a place in her new opulent home, her husband, Johannes, leaves her alone, disappearing for days, never consummating the marriage, while her new unmarried sister-in-law bristles at the competition for control of the household.  To appease her loneliness, Johannes buys Nella a replica of their house – a large doll house – and instructs her to find a craftsman, a miniaturist,  to fill it with miniature furniture.

9780062306845_p0_v2_s192x300Suddenly, the Miniaturist takes control of the plot.  With eerie foreshadowing and obscure messages the Miniaturist predicts Nella’s life, sending her new pieces for her dollhouse before she requests them.  A sudden shocking revelation changes the momentum and story evolves into a cross between an Alfred Hitchcock mystery and Morgenstern’s Night Circus.

I enjoyed every bit, anticipating the next surprise – a betrayal, secret lovers, a baby – with a warehouse of sugar both sweetening and decaying the characters. To be immersed in the drama, you must suspend belief.  Burton paints an authentic picture of the old Dutchmen: the burgermeisters with their forbidding rules of the city, the power and wealth of merchants, and the strict Calvinist Minister dictates – all adding to the intrigue.

Review: The Night Circus