Book Review: 'The Heirs,' By Susan RiegerSusan Rieger's new book follows an upper-crust, Upper West Side family whose certainties are thrown into doubt after their father dies and an unknown Other Woman sues his estate for child support.
You've seen The Royal Tenenbaums, right? I love that movie. It's Wes Anderson at maybe his third-most Wes Anderson-iest, telling the tale of a family of geniuses that live, grow, shatter and die in a magical version of New York City. It begins with a book being laid down and opened to page one: "Royal Tenenbaum bought the house on Archer Avenue in the winter of his 35th year," the narrator says, the camera cutting away, the voice fading, a gypsy cab pulling up to the curb. After that, it becomes just a movie, but I have always imagined that, in my own make-believe New York, there's an actual book with those actual words — the story of a rich, sad, messed up clan of geniuses going slowly to pieces in a world that they once commanded, but has now begun to escape them.
There is no such book. I get that. But what does exist is the next best thing: The Heirs, by Susan Rieger, a novel that nearly fills that void for me. That treads that same familiar ground. That reads in the same clipped, clean, lock-jawed voice — as if the words themselves had all gone to Vassar and spent their summers boating in the Hamptons.
"When he was dying, Rupert Falkes had the best care money could buy. His wife, Eleanor, saw to that. After the last round of chemo failed, she installed him in New York-Presbyterian in a large, comfortable private room with a window facing the Hudson."
This is how it begins. The wealthy, powerful, charming, dying father of a family of five boys (plus lovely wife) who leaves, in the wake of his passing, all the normal destruction, and a little extra. Who leaves (probably) a mistress and (maybe) two bastard children and (perhaps) even more than that. Who had been, up to the moment of his last words ("Settle my just debts."), the picture of slightly distant, slightly cold fatherly perfection, beloved and adored — but then becomes something else once the Other Woman shows up.
Or does he? This is the question that Rieger explores in The Heirs, or one of them, anyway. Does death root us in memory as the people we were while breathing, or should consequent data, gathered after the fact, be used to ret-con the recollections of the survivors?
She proceeds methodically, moving back and forth in time and in and out of the heads of various characters like Jane Goodall among the moneyed elite of the Upper West Side. And god, yes, I agree. The last thing we need in the world is yet another novel of dead fathers and their messed up children. Yes, the last thing we need is another forensic examination of American elitism in the late 20th century, and backhanded examples of how easily emotional complications can be resolved with the liquidation of a trust or the speedy application of half-a-million dollars to buy a new apartment when the last one proves too haunted by past mistakes.
But there is something so voyeuristically sweet about this version of that done-to-death trope, and so viciously cutting when observed with such wit and precision as Rieger offers. No one simply goes out to eat. They go to E.A.T. or Caravelle and sit only in the best seats. The champagne is Veuve Cliquot. Rupert's hospital room has a view over the Hudson and even the jokes all come with an educated accent.
"'I knew [your father] was dying from the first diagnosis. You all thought he'd get better. It's no surprise you were thrown.' Eleanor cleared her throat. 'Gotterdammerung on West Sixty-Seventh.'"
She is, of course, talking to her children there. Five boys, each successful, all Princeton grads — lawyers, agents, one musician (but with a MacArthur grant, of course). And as much as the story of The Heirs is about their coming to grips with the death of their father, that tale — those five tales, really, with their dance of divorces and DNA tests, family gatherings and tearful confessions — are secondary. Of her son Harry, Eleanor at one point says, "He's re-writing his entire life up until yesterday." And that's the trick that Rieger pulls on the reader, too, every page re-writing our understanding of the past, of how we feel about Rupert and Eleanor, or Harry, Will, Sam, Jack and Tom — the "Five Famous, Fierce, Forceful, Faithful, Fabled, Fortunate, Fearless Falkeses".
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.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, videogames, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic atPhiladelphiamagazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.