The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith – Review
Unmooring and Unlocking: review of The Rules of Inheritance
When author, blogger, and therapist Claire Bidwell Smith was eighteen years old, her mother died of colon cancer. At twenty-five, Smith lost her father to prostate cancer that spread through his body: “He was forced to choose radiation over the more successful prostatectomy since my mother was the one who needed immediate surgery.” The book that results from this early experience with two fatally ill parents and coping with loss, is, perhaps surprisingly, neither a heavy nor depressing read. Smith handles the difficult material with detailed, concrete prose that reads as having been distilled to its essence.
Joan Didion, another notable author of grief memoir, has said that “the details give us the scene.” Smith’s eye for precisely the right detail to convey a character, experience, or emotion resonates whether she is describing helping her mother with a bedpan or traveling to a far-off locale while essentially searching for her parents after their deaths: “Malapascua,” she writes of a trip to a remote island in the Philippines, “looks bigger than I imagined…I hold my sandals and wade through the warm waves…my backpack hooked over one shoulder and my flip-flops in my hand. The sand is warm between my toes and the only sound comes from the waves breaking on the shore. I’ve done it, I think. I’ve unmoored myself.”
The sensation of unmooring permeates Smith’s memoir. It encompasses growing from young adulthood to actual-adulthood without parents. It articulates the feeling of having lost them both in what, in the course of a lifetime, could be called rapid succession.
Smith’s choice of present tense and non-chronological order adds to this effect. The reader does not become confused, as the thematic organization is well-handled, but we are deftly able to sense the lost young woman behind the carefully controlled prose of the wiser writer who is weaving the narrative. As Smith undertakes her search for meaning after her parents’ deaths—her search for her own place in the world and where she should go from grief—she travels to Europe, California, and New York, poignantly encountering, on occasion, moments when she opens up to a stranger, and vice-versa. Unmooring leads to unlocking. Though the two sensations seem on the surface to stand in opposition, their unity results in moments of centeredness: when people come to new understandings. When, after loss, they begin to heal.
This thread of unlocking and being unlocked begins early in the book, when Smith, then a college student about to lose her mother, meets with a French-Canadian writing tutor named Michel about a paper she can’t seem to write. When she starts to cry during the session, she explains that her mother is dying and Michel responds that his father committed suicide a year before, also breaking down. He says it is the first time he cried over his loss. “I am silent,” Smith writes of that moment, “marveling at the power we have to unlock a person.”
When Smith is eighteen and working in a café in Atlanta, her coworkers gossip about the bartender, Colin’s, sister’s murder. Smith is immediately drawn to Colin. “So what is it that we have in common?” he asks her. They are united in their common grief and loss, and begin a new chapter in their lives together, in New York and L.A., before the relationship crashes and burns, what drew them together ultimately driving them apart. Yet both are changed.
The most resonant moment of unlocking happens with a Swiss stranger, Patric, on a train in Europe, after somebody jumped in front of the train Smith was riding on, committing suicide, a subtextual reminder of Michel and of her own chronic experience with death and loss. “It’s a simple thing, meeting a stranger and opening yourself up…” It is one of those simple things, though, that helps Smith find connection in her suddenly parent-less world in which she is, she writes, “nobody’s most important person.”
The instance where one of these unlocking connections fails to happen is an interesting and surprising one: after reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and coming to revere its author as a kindred spirit, Smith meets Dave Eggers while she is painting a room in the future home of 826LA alongside him. She finds herself awkwardly confessing that her parents died, too. Silence hangs in the air between them and she realizes he must hear these kinds of stories from strangers all the time. “That must have been hard for you,” he finally says. Then he is called from the room to attend to another matter. Only later, while Smith is surrounded by the kids she tutors at 826LA, working in her sunny office as the volunteer coordinator, does it strike her that “he did have an answer for me after all:” transforming grieving to giving.
The ultimate way that Smith, who is now a grief counselor in Los Angeles and a mother herself, accomplishes this, is through the writing of this memoir, a book that the reader walks away from contemplating his or her personal experiences with loss, the quality perhaps most indicative of the work’s success. With The Rules of Inheritance, Smith demonstrates her own power to unlock all of us, for grief and loss are inevitable in the course of a life. By sharing these stories, putting them to words, and remembering, we can not only move forward but also honor the lives of those we have lost.
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