‘How I came into my inheritance, and other true stories’ by Dorothy Gallagher

How i came into my inheritance photo 2This is an odd one. It’s an exceptionally well-written book about an interesting topic (the author’s family: Ukranian Jewish émigrés, all devout communists), yet it left me cold.

I picked it off the shelf at random and read the first paragraph:

After my mother broke her hip, I put her in a nursing home.

“You want to put me here?” she said.

The woman was certified senile, but she still knew how to push my buttons. Not that she didn’t have reason to worry; had I listened when she’d begged me “Darling, please, please don’t do anything to hurt Daddy. It will kill him…”?

How could I not read on?

The book is made up of fragments of memoir and oral family history covering Gallagher’s own life, and that of her parents and numerous aunts and uncles. The fragments are not in chronological order, so it requires the reader to pay attention to keep up with what’s going on. The first chapter tells how she defended herself against a conman who wanted to trick her elderly father into giving him his money. This is her securing her financial inheritance, and the rest of the book is concerned with all the other things she inherited from her family: her appearance, her beliefs, her personality and, above all, her hang-ups.

Her parents’ generation emigrated to America in the early 20th century. Between them they experienced much of the tumultuous history of the time: her father fought in the first world war and was present at Ypres-Lys; her uncle returned to Soviet Ukraine for a visit in the 1930s and was shocked by the poverty he witnessed. They had eventful lives. The stories feature suicide, murder, love affairs, and persecution for Jewishness and communist beliefs. Particularly startling (and funny) are the passages where Gallagher describes the communist summer camp she attended, where the teenaged campers were encouraged to publicly confess to their ‘chauvinist’ faults, and to accuse others of failings. It’s certainly not boring, and at no point did I consider not finishing the book (although I very rarely abandon a book even if I’m not enjoying it anyway: I’ll slog on till the end hoping it will improve or the ending will make it all worthwhile, then get outraged if it doesn’t).

So why did I have issues with this book? It’s incredibly raw and revealing about her family’s flaws and foibles, which made me feel a bit uncomfortable. She describes her elderly parents’ dementia and frailty without much affection or love to balance out the indignity. It felt at times that this was a cathartic exercise in parent-blaming that it would have been better to have left in a drawer unpublished, or at least toned down before dissemination. It verges on vindictive at times, such as when talking about her aunt Lily’s widower, Ben, who sounds slightly pompous but by no means a bad person:

And here’s something that won’t surprise you. To this day I don’t know whether Ben is dead or alive. The minute Lily died we dropped him like a hot potato.

A passage like this would be striking and effective in a novel, but when talking about a real person seems needlessly cruel. What if Ben is still alive, and reads it?

Contrasting with this stark honesty is the strange way she doesn’t reveal much about aspects of her own life. She shines a flashlight at certain times of her life, brightly illuminating them, but leaves other parts entirely dark: for example, she mentions in passing that she has had at least two husbands, but doesn’t really tell us anything about them, how she met them, or why the relationships ended. As a result, I found it difficult to get fully immersed in her life.

I wouldn’t tell anyone not to read this book – it is interesting, and also quite short, so not too much of a time investment. I admired Gallagher’s skill in telling her story, but I can’t honestly say I liked it much.

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