Claire Bidwell Smith’s, The Rules of Inheritance, is an emotionally charged memoir exploring the myriad nature of grief. Bidwell Smith was fourteen-years-old the year that both her mother and father were diagnosed with cancer. By the time she was twenty-five she had lost both parents and, as an only child, was left feeling completely and terrifyingly alone in the world.
After reading the synopsis of The Rules of Inheritance, I was immediately reminded of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Those who have read Eggers’ seminal novel will know that he too lost both parents to cancer at a young age. Those who haven’t read it should do so right now. Seriously. Stop reading this review and go read it. Now.
This association between Dave Eggers and The Rules of Inheritance was strengthened in my mind when I read up on Bidwell Smith and learned that she had spent time working at Egger’s literacy centre 826LA. I also learned that she had written for Huffington Post and Time Out New York. So basically, before I had even cracked the spine of The Rules of Inheritance, I was pretty sure that Claire Bidwell Smith was shortly to become my new hero and that her book was bound to be amazing.
The Rules of Inheritance is a carefully constructed memoir separated into five parts, each named after one of the five stages of grief. Every part begins with a quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who first identified the five stages on grief in her famous work, On Death and Dying.
According to Kubler-Ross the five stages of grief are as follows – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Bidwell Smith examines each stage in consecutive order but makes the interesting choice to do so in a non-linear fashion. Each of the five parts begins when Bidwell Smith is a teenager and then skips forward through the years into adulthood, with each chapter marked by the year and the author’s age. This means that as we move through each stage of grief we are constantly flashing backwards and forwards through time.
The fractured time line was a risky move and might easily have resulted in the kind of read that usually ends up giving me a headache. Bidwell Smith makes it work, however. She writes in the presence tense from beginning to end, which brings a strong sense of immediacy to every scene. It doesn’t read like a traditional memoir so much as it does a collection of snapshots, jumbled out of sequence. The effect is somewhat disjointed, mirroring the confusing sense of unreality that is so much a part of the grieving process.
Her mother dies when she is eighteen and in her first year of college. Her father dies when she is twenty-five. Suddenly, she is cast adrift in a world where she made painfully aware of the fact that she is belongs to no one. She is nobody’s “special someone”.
This is not a handbook on how to cope with loss. Bidwell Smith does not shy away from the dark and self-destructive side of grieving. She recounts the details of a failed relationship and her struggles with alcoholism, all the while making it very plain that she did not always handle her grief in the most healthy way.
Where The Rules of Inheritance really succeeds is in portraying how messy and complicated the grieving process really is, how even though you may be able to identify the five stages of grief there is no way of tracking where each stage begins or how long it will last. There are no “rules”, not really. Bidwell Smith shows how it is entirely possible to experience all five stages at once, overlapping constantly and repeating in cycles. And even if you manage to work your way through Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, the fact remains that there is no “cure” for grief. Losing someone you love is not something that you ever really recover from. It’s something that you learn to live with.
In The Rules of Inheritance, Bidwell Smith examines how grief can change you on multiple levels and in ways that are not always obvious at the time. It is a study of loss and heartache from someone who has sunk down into the darkest depths of despair of loneliness and managed to come out the other side, tempered by suffering and stronger for it.
Ultimately, this is a very uplifting and inspirational read. However here’s a piece of friendly advice – read it in the privacy of your own home, preferably with plenty of comfort food and boxes of tissues on standby. This not a book for reading on the bus, or in the park, or in any public place – not unless you are comfortable openly weeping in front of strangers (which I am not). And make sure you keep your phone close at hand at all times because, trust me on this, when you finish The Rules of Inheritance your first instinct will be to call all your friends and family members and tell them how much you love them. And if you’re not in the habit of calling people to make random declarations of love? Err… maybe hide your phone before you pick up this book.
Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling