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

Divorce Papers

9780804137447_p0_v1_s260x420From its title, Susan Rieger’s The Divorce Papers sounded like a quirky Sophie Kinsella-type novel, light and funny.  It is not.  Neither is it a dry angst-ridden melodrama.  So what is it? An epistolary – a story set in letters revealing a progression of developments through its characters.  I started the book late at night, expecting to preview whether or not I wanted to actually read it – two hours later, I was half way through.

Rieger’s, a graduate of Mount Holyoke and a former law professor at Columbia and Yale, uses her background to offer a lively explanation of how lawyers interact with their clients and with each other, while inserting personal details rounding out the characters background.  Not limited to letters, the story included emails, court documents, and legalese.  If you are a fan of the popular television series, “The Good Wife,” you will appreciate the story behind the story that affects the case.

Sophie Diehl, a young attorney specializing in defending criminal cases at a prestigious New England law firm, reluctantly agrees to conduct the initial interview for a divorce case, since the firm’s lead attorney is on vacation.  The client is the daughter of one of the firm’s most profitable clients, and he cannot and should not be kept waiting.  Sophie immediately establishes a rapport with forty-two year old Mia Meikeljohn Durkeim, the wife of a prominent medical doctor who is having an affair, and remains the lead attorney – despite all her efforts to transfer the case to Fiona, the firm’s experienced divorce lawyer.

As the case progresses through shock, acrimony, greed, and a number of other horrors in the settlement of dissolution, the information load can get overwhelming.  At one point, although it has been a few years, I felt the anguish of office politics and the discomfort of emails flying back and forth to resolve issues.  When Rieger included the simulated versions of client billing, references to case law, and protracted details on relevant deliberations that provided precedence, I admit I skipped through to get back to the story.   Sophie’s personal life – unsuitable boyfriends, a French mother who writes mystery books, an English father who holds a prestigious chair at a university, a friend who acts in the Williamstown theater – counter her daily business interactions with colleagues and clients.   Happily, all ends well – both the divorce case in its resolution and Sophie’s life and career.

Alan Cheuse’s review for NPR influenced my reading of this book, and his review  – All Sides of a Divorce, Told in Fresh Lively ‘Papers’ – has more details, if you need them before you decide to read this entertaining book that will convince you to avoid divorce at any cost – or maybe never go through it again.

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