Fran Hawthorne opens The Heirs at a moment of extreme pique for protagonist Eleanor Ritter. Her mother has been found on her New Jersey bedroom floor with a fractured hip. Once Eleanor arrives at the emergency room, the head nurse inappropriately blurts out, “It was almost funny, in a way.” The nerve!
Eleanor exclaims her protest in shock. Indeed, there was nothing funny either about her mother’s fall or her fractured hip, the embarrassed nurse virtually stutters in response.
A few seconds later, another shock hits Eleanor.
Rose Ritter had mysteriously somehow survived the Holocaust—mysterious to Eleanor anyway. For as long as Eleanor could remember, Rose had refused to mention a word about life in Poland before or during World War II, and had not uttered a single Polish word for 50 years. She hated Poland and everything about it, and seemed to block it from her existence.
But earlier that day, Eleanor learns, Rose had screamed in Polish at an EMT—a recent emigree from Poland—“Nazi bitch!”
Within the first few pages of this well-crafted novel, Hawthorne introduces the major sources of anxiety for Eleanor Ritter, which she continues to develop and unfold along with the story. Eleanor’s widowed mother has grown older and more ill. While still fairly sharp, she has divulged virtually nothing to Eleanor about her personal and family history. And Eleanor fears that her mother’s time may run out before she learns the details of the family history that she so desperately wants to know.
And time may be running out in general. It is 1999, as the thousand years that began with the Crusades come to a close, and an alarming number of people believe the simple change in calendar digits could bring the entire world crashing down. Eleanor herself is not entirely sure this won’t happen.
After all, her increasingly aloof, software-geek husband Nick frequently works 16-hour days to shore up any and all potential IT glitches that could result from the impending millennial rollover, otherwise known as Y2K.
Eleanor also faces immediate and extended family matters. As a non-Jew, Nick does not care much as their daughter Kate prepares less-than-enthusiastically for her Bat Mitzvah. Eleanor needs and wants him to help her encourage Kate. But Nick is missing in action and in any case objects to the major expense of a fancy party for something he considers meaningless.
Nick does care that their son Adam plays soccer with his school team, which stirs up yet another source of anxiety for Eleanor. Adam, shy and not particularly adept, dislikes soccer. But Maria and Janek Wysocki, whose son Tadek is the best soccer player on Adam’s team, have, like Rose’s EMT, emigrated from Poland. And Eleanor soon begins to obsess about their backgrounds, too. Where were they from, and where were their parents and grandparents during World War II?
While Nick wants Adam to play soccer, he seldom helps Eleanor ferry the boy to and from practices and can’t spare weekend hours to attend his games — time that conflicts with Kate’s required synagogue attendance and Bat Mitzvah lessons.
Eleanor’s emotions grow increasingly complex as she grows more involved with the soccer team and the Wysockis. While Tadek excels at sports, Adam shines in art, and the boys have decided to collaborate on a school project on sharks that requires some artistic panache. And Eleanor acts something like a shark as she gleans a detail here and there about the Wysockis, just as her mother unexpectedly begins to reveal things about her childhood in prewar Poland.
Maria’s father was a pharmacist in a small Polish town.
Rose had lived in a small town with her brother Avram, sister Chana and their parents, Eleanor had no idea where. A gang of boys loitered near its pharmacy and threw stones at Jewish families. Once, her grandfather had been beaten by the boys and the pharmacist, later an avid Nazi who reported on and terrorized people that helped Jews. Could Maria’s grandfather have been that pharmacist? Had her parents known as their Jewish neighbors were carted off to concentration camps?
Hawthorne uses one especially effective device used throughout the novel. Eleanor’s mind runs at a full tilt most of the time, her thoughts racing through assumptions and questions, usually with far more bluntness than she could ever ask her mother or the Wysockis. But the reader gets to see and hear those thoughts, which Hawthorne’s third-person narrator shares with us in italics, from the story’s beginning through its end.
This novel resolves much more differently than we might believe at the start, and with more complications than one could note in a relatively short review. All of that makes this novel very believable and real, very human.
And more than anything else, it shows readers that it is possible to handle almost any situation with grace, through change, acceptance and forgiveness.
Reviewed by Alyssa A. Lappen
Alyssa A. Lappen is a U.S.-based editor focused on business, finance and the Middle East and Islam. She served as a Senior Editor of Institutional Investor (1993–1999), Working Woman (1991–1993), and Corporate Finance (1991). Her full-length poetry collection, The Minstrel’s Song, was published by Cross-Cultural Communications in 2015.