Book Review: The Rules of Inheritance


"Sometimes I am most at home in the face of utter disaster."

Claire was fourteen when, within the span of a few months, both her parents were diagnosed with cancer. Her mom would die of colon cancer four years later, and her father of prostate cancer seven years after that. Eleven years of cancer, and an ever-growing number of parentless years to come.

The Rules of Inheritance is not just about cancer, however: it’s about going off to college and miserable first jobs, about unstable relationships and adventures in exotic locales, about raging desperation and the tumultuous ups and downs familiar to any 20-something, about losing a family and creating one. It’s about what we search for in other people and places and at the bottom a wine bottle, only to discover, in a nod to Janis Joplin, we are all we’ve got. It’s about the way that losing a parent—in this case, both—changes everything and nothing.

The book is organized according to each of the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally, Acceptance. Developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross back in the 1970's, the five stages are well worn, and widely misunderstood. Often thought to be linear, each successive stage is perceived to be a step forward from the one before it. Claire puts that myth to an end. The book bobs around through time, shifting seamlessly from 1996 to 1992 to 2002: a subtle acknowledgment that we spend our whole lives denying, accepting, and everything in between, depending on the day.

For the most part, Claire avoids musing on death and dying: she simply tells her story, all in the present tense, even as she leaps back and forth through time. 

We read grief memoirs not to suspend reality, but to dive more deeply into it, relishing the familiarity and the discovery that we're not alone, as the most mundane details uncover moments and memories we've seemingly forgotten.

The paper that sends Claire to the writing center in the opening chapter is suddenly an essay on Hamlet I wrote for a class on Shakespeare, composed numbly in waves as I pulled the midnight-3am shift during my mom's final two weeks in hospice, the light of my laptop illuminating her sleeping body. Looking back on the moment she chose to stop for the night while driving home, only to wake up hours later to the news that her mother had died, Claire writes of the "slick, hot mess of hate and regret" she would continue to feel for years to come. For a moment, my insides, too, "tumble out onto the floor around me," thinking back for the zillionth time at having chosen that morning of all mornings to go to class, at not having been there when my mom died.

Masochism, with a side of schadenfreude? Perhaps. But something more than that.

Recalling a chance meeting of a fellow undergrad who'd likewise lost a parent, and the way their conversation instantly "unspool[ed] like smoke," she "marvel[s] at the power we have to unlock a person" through shared experience. In The Rules of Inheritance, Claire manages to unlock her story in a way that's honest and raw, without veering into either sentimentality or melodrama. In the process, she invites each of us to unlock our own.