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

Crow Lake

Unknown   What if a car accident killed your parents when you were a child, and you were raised by your older brothers?   In Mary Larson’s Crow Lake, two teenage brothers bravely cope with this premise in a story of resilience and perseverance, set in the cold wild isolated area of Northern Ontario.

Kate Morrison narrates her family’s story, as a traumatized seven year old, and later as a successful research  biologist in her late twenties.  With two older brothers and a toddler sister, she remembers how they determinedly grappled with the problems of staying together.  At every turn, heart-wrenching decisions and difficult daily life follow the Morrisons.  Only Bo, a toddler at the time of the parents’ death from a car accident, provides some comic relief, as the assertive and funny terrible-two year old who plays with pots and pans on the kitchen floor.

The Morrison parents have gone to town to buy a suitcase for eighteen year old Luke, who surprisingly has been accepted into a teacher’s college.  His seventeen year old brother, Matt, always thought to have been the smarter of the two brothers, has a promising future too, as he heads into his last year of high school, focused on getting a scholarship to study biology.  When a logging truck kills the parents, the two brothers are determined to keep the family together, despite well meaning offers from their father’s family to send the two little girls to live with distant relatives.

With little money left to them after their parents’ death, the brothers rely on the charity of the small town neighbors who knew their father, a banker.  Luke foregoes college to stay home to care for the two little girls, working part-time on an adjacent farm and later as a janitor in the local one room school.  As the story unfolds, family secrets are revealed, and  Kate looks back on the  “what might have beens” – decisions affecting her brother’s lives forever – Luke’s encounter with a flirty attractive girl,  Matt’s tangling with the violent farm neighbor’s daughter.  Life is hard, with smatterings of humor, but severe turning points mark life-changing choices.

As the only sibling to go on to college and a Ph.D., Kate feels guilty for what she has, and what they lost.  Finally, she faces her demons at a family reunion – her nephew’s eighteenth birthday – and with the help of Daniel, her colleague and lover, Kate makes peace with her family and with herself.

Crow Lake is a page turner.  Lawson’s storytelling style is comfortable and will draw you into the places and the people – the kind of book you can get lost in.

Mary Lawson has published two more books and has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize since writing this first novel, Crow Lake in 2002. If not for Liane Moriarty, I would have missed this talented Canadian author who lives in England. In responding to an interview for “By the Book” in the New York Times, Moriarty confirmed Crow Lake as the book she wished she had written, “with every character …so beautifully described and developed…”   Lawson’s The Other Side of the Bridge was on the long list for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, and has characters again in northern Ontario.  I can’t wait to read it.

 

 

A Spool of Blue Thread

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Anne Tyler’s latest book –  A Spool of Blue Thread –  begins as a simple family saga, introducing the Whitshanks, a seemingly innocuous group of characters – hardworking father, caring mother, responsible sisters, the black sheep brother, and the son who will take over the business.   Just as you are comfortably settled into their lives, Tyler shifts gears, introducing layers of generations, revealing idiosyncacries, and offering her trademark wisdom about relationships and life.

Here are a few gems I’d like to remember:

“Believe me, it was a dark day in the universe when the internet started letting people research their own symptoms.”

“They say sweets are helpful in times of sadness, she said. I’ve always found that to be true.”

“He (God) gives them more than they can handle every day of the year…Half of the world is walking around just…destroyed, most of the time.”

“…children figure out so young that people die. It makes you wonder why we bother accumulating, accumulating, when we know from earliest childhood how it’s all going to end.”

Although the process of growing up and growing old dominates the story through three generations, Tyler deftly inserts family resentments and good intentions gone awry.  The sudden death of a main character scatters the family focus, and the aftermath of a secret uncovered  rings true.  Maybe Tyler is offering a warning: destroy all those written notes, long before you think it’s necessary (Jane Austen had the right idea – better to leave in mystery).

As in all her books, Tyler provides a back story for all her characters, and neatly ties up all loose strings – in this case, with a spool of blue thread.  But her books always end with a sigh, and the promise that life goes on.  For Anne Tyler, it’s the middle that counts – not necessarily the beginning or end.  If you are a Tyler fan, you will easily fall into the familiar rhythm and enjoy yourself.

 

 

Children’s Books by Former Newbery Medalists – Mister Max and The Thing About Luck

Mister Max and the Book of Lost Things by Cynthia Voigt

Best known for the Newbery Award winning book Homecoming,  a compassionate and adventurous tale of a lost family of abandoned children, Cynthia Voigt has written a number of children’s books since her first success, with her most recent – Mister Max: The Book of Lost Things – as the first in a new series.  The premise is familiar: Max’s parents mysteriously disappear, leaving him behind to live with his librarian grandmother.  Young Max pursues a series of detective jobs to earn money as the search for his parents continues.

I persevered through Max’s search for a lost dog and his disguises in his actor parents’ costumes (they own the Starling theater), but when he “solves” the case of the mysterious missing spoon by finding that it had fallen behind the cabinet, I skipped to the last few pages to see if Max found his parents. He does – sort of.  Since this is the first of three in the series, Voigt creates a scenario to tease readers into the next book.  Unfortunately, the action is too slow, the crime-solving is tedious, and I found myself not interested in Max’s story.

The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata9781416918820_p0_v6_s260x420

Author of the Newbery winning book, Kira-Kira, Cynthia Kadahata’s new children’s book – The Thing About Luck – again taps into the Japanese family ethic, offering cultural insights as the 2013 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature.

With the hard life of the combine operator who follows the wheat harvest as the catalyst for the story, Kadohata taps into the thoughts of a twelve-year-old girl as she changes into a responsible adult.  Although the details of machine operation and time-sensitive crops were more than I needed, the family dynamics of Summer with her Japanese grandparents who work on a wheat-harvesting crew mix well with the occasional pithy advice.  Overcoming her fears of mosquitos, boys, and growing up, Summer manages to save the family – with a little humor and a lot of inner courage.