The Heirs: A Novel, by Susan Rieger

This novel has one of the most interesting structures I’ve run across for some time. It begins with the death of Rupert Falkes, a rich Manhattan attorney. Falkes leaves behind his wife Eleanor and five sons as well as a substantial amount of money for everyone in the family.

Shortly after the funeral Eleanor receives a letter from a woman claiming that Rupert also left two other sons she knew nothing about and had provided an income for them for many years. All she has to offer for proof is a photo of herself with someone who may or may not be Rupert. It it true or is it larceny? The book looks at the reactions of the widow and sons in dealing with this new perspective on Rupert’s life as it also carves away mysteries about Rupert’s life.

Rupert is a wonderfully complex character. Born in England and abandoned at birth Rupert is raised in a religious boys home. He’s so loved by the reverend running the home that Rupert is the only boy with whom he shares his last name. (The other foundlings are given names out of Dickens.) Rupert is bright enough to make his way through England’s public schools and land at Cambridge. He then makes his way to America and manages to get a full scholarship at Yale Law after a meeting on a train. Rieger is pretty unflinching in giving us a character, or at least a presence, complete with his charms and flaws, from his sexual drive to a skill at bringing law clerks near tears with a few words.

HIs upbringing, time in the US, and marriage are all brought out in deeper and deeper detail as the book progresses while it also details the lives of the five sons, all Princeton grads going off in unique directions as an attorney, a doctor, a jazz musician, an agent, and a law professor. Rieger gives a warm picture of the sons and brothers. “The world’s first murder was between brothers,” says one. “Whoever wrote the Bible knew his onions.” I think many writers would have stuck with the main characters and the letter, but Rieger manages to give such a full look at the sons, from childhood through university, that the reader ends up feeling they’re as well known as Rupert.

The book eventually resolves the mystery of the two bastard sons as well as the secret of Rupert’s abandonment. It also brings in an amazing number of secondary characters, including a doctor who has held a lifelong love for Eleanor and hopes that Rupert’s death will finally bring them together.

The complexity and fullness of the book make it a wonderful read while the way Rieger weaves in and out of the present tense pulls the reader along from one finely drawn moment to the next.