The Heirs, Susan Rieger, author; Kimberly Farr, narrator
This novel can aptly be described as the anatomy of a family. Rupert and Eleanor Falkes’ lives were the stuff of fairy tales, or at least his, Rupert’s, was the stuff of a folk story. He was born in 1934, into a world of poverty, in England. He was abandoned as an infant and raised by the Reverend Henry Falkes, who ran an orphanage. The Reverend adopted him and gave him his name. As he was growing up, by a combination of his sheer force of will and his great good luck, he achieved scholastically and attended the best schools on scholarship. His good luck followed him to America where he attended Yale and became a successful lawyer, married into the high brow and influential Phipps family, members of the upper class, made wise investments and grew very wealthy. Eleanor Phipps was born in 1938. She was brought up very properly, complete with a debut. She was born into a life of luxury. His life was a tale of rags to riches and hers was a tale of rich to richer. In 1962, Eleanor had her first child, Harry. Then she had another son every two years afterwards named Will, Sam, Tom and John (Jack), until there were five, at which time she decided to cease and desist having children.
The book traces the lives of this family, looking backward into their ancestry and forwards into their future progeny, for several decades, ending around the turn of the century. Everyone that each of the characters dealt with was explored and exposed. They did not always make wise decisions. Sometimes they were headstrong and rash and had to deal with the consequences. How they dealt with them depended, often, on their stature in life or ultimate goals. The analysis of each individual life and background was insightful and spot on. Although the loose ends seemed a bit too neatly wrapped up at the end for me, the novel was engaging and held my interest completely. Everyone had some secret, some personality quirk, some private issue that they had to deal with and come to terms with as time passed; each of the circumstances presented was realistic and possible in real life. The difficulty that existed was in keeping track of each of the characters and their time frames as they kept changing.
The personalities and attitudes of different classes of people and religions were dealt with deftly. The first part of the 20th century and continuing onward, was a time when the differences between people were highlighted rather than subdued, understood and accepted. Men were considered superior and often pushed the envelope without taking full responsibility for their behavior, often abandoning their pregnant paramours and cheating on their wives. They were often duplicitous. The inequality that existed prevalently among those of different sexual proclivities, race, religion and class was almost acceptable. Women were largely dependent upon men for their success in life which made them more vulnerable. Higher education for women was considered the road to matrimony while for men it was the road to success.
I did not feel that the book was realistic in the way it handled homosexuality, which was largely hidden and frowned upon in the time frame of the novel, but not presented in that way. The racial and religious issues of the day were portrayed stereotypically. The Jewish mother instilled guilt with rude remarks and judgments, often to hide inadequacy and insecurity, sometimes creating secretive and defiant children. The “Wasp” mother felt superior and raised children who were arrogant and selfish. Although they were well bred with good manners and speech, they felt better than others, mocking those beneath them. They often relied on family money to maintain their lifestyles, and in the process they used and discarded those that did not measure up to their standards. The fathers were generally free from major penalties for their sins. The attitude was almost acceptable that boys would be boys and thus deserved forgiveness, to a point. The differences between the way in which the British, more reserved, and the Americans, more gregarious, reacted to and handled issues seemed fairly accurate. The consequential moments were handled pretty much in conventional ways for the times. Even those who marched to the beat of a different drummer, marched in step with the moment or point in time. Some of the brothers were better developed as characters than others, but for the most part, all of the characters were real and visible on every page.
Each life was examined in minute detail, and the reader was not spared from learning any of the secrets they harbored. Their clandestine relationships, first loves and last loves were very much alive and well on the page. There were a great many loose ends, but they were all tied up in the end, a bit too neatly, perhaps. Nevertheless, I liked the fact that all of the mysteries were alluded to or revealed.
Each of the characters, parents, children, extended families, friends and lovers were completely fleshed out. Their relationships with each other, from parents to grandchildren, as they married, became parents bringing children into the world who grew up and also brought children into the world, was fully illustrated and was filled with insights about each of them and those with whom they came in contact; their careers, and even their sex lives were laid bare.
Through this detailed exploration of their lives, the reader learns a great deal, but only minimally of the events during the time of the novel, from the mid thirties to the beginning of the millennium. The book concentrates more on the lives of each person, than any current events. Their weaknesses were exposed as were their strengths. Background, religion, homosexuality, infidelity, loyalty, wealth and class were almost made characters in the novel. The times, the personalities of the upper crust, their view of those of lower stature, and the way they interacted and behaved was perfectly presented by the author. It was spot on.
Oddly, anti-Semitism seemed more apparent while there seemed to be little homophobia or racism. The arrogance and rudeness of both Jews and Gentiles was displayed, although the “Wasp” portrayal seemed the more successful and positive presentation of the two, even when negative issues were considered. The three quarters of a century over which the book took place represented great changes in our society and through the lives of the characters, their development and secrets, it was fully illuminated. The reasons for marriage from the middle of the 20th century to the beginning of the 21st, changed dramatically. The way racial, religious and sexual prejudice was dealt with became radically different as avenues of interrelationships and more open dialogue changed the way the world and its inhabitants was viewed. I think this was illustrated well by the author, as well as the changing values and mores of our times. It was sometimes Pollyanna in its presentation, but I truly thought it worked very well and would recommend this book as a really good read which will leave the reader thinking long afterward.
Because I was brought up during the time of the novel and was familiar with all of the places mentioned from the restaurants to the neighborhoods, the attitudes, schools and prejudices, I found the book particularly interesting and nostalgic at times, if not enlightening. I remember the same New York neighborhoods and edifices, frequented some of the same haunts and recognized the names of many posh restaurants and addresses.
The narrator’s presentation was compelling and drew me into the story with her interpretation of each scene and character. Reading the book might be a bit drier than the audio, especially at first, because it is so detail oriented. Sometimes, an audio can be better than a print book as the reader can imbue the novel with emotion and interpretation. So long as the reader does not become the story and knows his/her place, I find it often enhances the book’s presentation.