The Rules of Inheritance: a Book Review

I’ll admit that when I started The Rules of Inheritance, I didn’t realize it was a memoir.  (I knew going into the book that I’d be writing a short review of it when I was done, so I purposely avoided reading anything about the book – both so it wouldn’t affect my impression of the book and so I wouldn’t inadvertently copy someone else’s review.) And I didn’t realize it was a memoir for quite a while, because it reads like fiction. If you’re the kind of person who avoids nonfiction because it’s too dry, this is the type of nonfiction that might help change your mind.

If you’re the type of person, however, who avoids books about loss, then this isn’t the book for you. This book is about loss. Huge, devastating, and far-reaching loss and grief, and the bad decisions that Claire make as she navigates a series of cruel blows. She seeks solace in various men, drugs, friends, and places, and for a while it seems her only constant companion is alcohol. Still, I did like the book even if I described it to Frank as “one big sad.”

The book isn’t written entirely sequentially. Instead, it jumps back in forth in time in order to tell a story about grief, rather than simply a story of a young woman’s life. Each section of the book represents a stage in the 5-step grieving process as described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The jumps in time are very easy to follow, as each begins with a year and an announcement of how old Claire is, and I think the author chose a pretty powerful way to tell her story. Smith also includes quotes from Kubler-Ross herself, emphasizing the reason for her story’s intentionally non-chronological structure. And ultimately, despite the bouncing around, the story still follows her general life trajectory.

I found the book a bit slow at first. I didn’t have a sense of who the character really was, and her grief was only conceptually sad to me because I didn’t know her well. But as I pushed on, I realized that it was brilliantly developed. In the beginning of the memoir, Claire doesn’t know who she is either, and her grief is new and raw and unprocessed. As she grows in her grief and as a person, it’s revealed to both her and to the reader. By the end of the book, I felt close to Claire, and felt her grief and healing as I would feel the grief and healing of a friend. It read like a novel written in chunks, and the experience was like watching an artist add paint to seemingly random places on the canvas, revealing the larger, coherent image only near the end.

As well done as the plotting & character development was, there were some parts of the book that didn’t work as well. Some of the language felt really forced, especially in the beginning. It seemed like I could tell when the author was trying hard to write, instead of just writing. The stark, blunt, short sentences she uses throughout seemed to work better than the occasional flowery descriptions she threw in, which I found distracting.  The descriptions were often pretty cool, but they seemed incongruous with the overall style.

Bottom line: I liked this book. I can’t say I enjoyed it, because it’s just so darn sad. But as someone who hasn’t lost a parent or other immediate family member, I think it’s a powerful glimpse into what that feels like, and how the feelings of grief evolve over time. And I liked how it was structured. Not only was it instructive, but I think it also made the story more interesting, and more palatable to people who might otherwise not want to read a work of nonfiction.


3 Stars

Disclaimer: This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own.

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