Novelist Susan Rieger is a graduate of Columbia Law School. She served as Dean of one of Yale University's residential colleges and as Associate Provost at Columbia University. Her 2014 debut novel, The Divorce Papers, about the progression of one woman's divorce and another woman's legal career, is told in a series of personal and professional snippets rather than in a more typical linear narrative format. It is clever, engaging, enjoyable and often very funny.
Rieger's new novel, The Heirs is different in tone and in theme from The Divorce Papers. Instead of divorce, we have a 300-page upper class family saga. Rupert Falkes, a British orphan who attends Cambridge University on a scholarship and comes to America in search of a new life, graduates from Yale Law School and becomes a highly-regarded lawyer at one of New York's most prestigious law firms. Rupert's wife Eleanor comes from "that class of New Yorker whose bloodlines were traced in the manner of racehorses." Eleanor and Rupert raise five sons on Manhattan's Upper West Side: Harry, a lawyer; Will, a Hollywood agent; Sam, a medical researcher; Jack, a genius musician; and Tom, a federal prosecutor. All five attend Princeton. In the aftermath of Rupert's death, his wife and his sons learn that Rupert may or may not have left behind a mistress and two illegitimate sons. This news throws the family into disarray, as each member of the clan responds differently to the allegations.
Several reviewers have commented that the book has the feel and tone of an Edith Wharton novel set in the 21st century. The story of Rupert, Eleanor and the "Five Famous, Fierce, Forceful, Faithful, Fabled, Fortunate, Fearless Falkeses" is told with humor, precision and grace. Rieger's prose made me like these people. I found myself wishing that I were part of the family's extended clan, or at the very least, that I knew them a little.
"If any of them was late for dinner -- dinner was a command performance most nights, seven o'clock with five minutes' grace, like the theatre -- he had a cheese sandwich in the kitchen. Once, there was a palace revolution. They all tripped in at seven thirty. They found the dinner table cleared. Eleanor was in the kitchen putting out the ingredients for cheese sandwiches on the counter. 'See you later,' she said. She and Rupert went downstairs to the Cafe. They next night she served cheese sandwiches for dinner. 'If you're going to be late,' she said, 'I don't see the point of serving a proper dinner.' The revolution was suppressed." (p.141)
Ultimately, The Heirs is about how impossible it is to know everything about another person, no matter how close you have been to that person, and in a way, perhaps that's for the best. At one point, in speaking about her son Harry, Eleanor notes that "he's re-writing his entire life up until yesterday." The novel does the same for its readers, re-writing our understanding of the past and in so doing, shifting the way we feel about each member of the Falkes family. There is love, there is money, there is sex. But there is also a close-knit group of people shaken by death. And in the writing, there is charm and wit. As Kirkus notes in its starred review, "just in time for poolside reading, this elegant novel wears its intelligence lightly."