The Rules of Inheritance: A Memoir

The Rules of Inheritance: A Memoir

by Claire Bidwell Smith


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780452298873
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/24/2012
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 531,945
Product dimensions: 5.44(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.66(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

 Claire Bidwell Smith is a therapist specializing in grief. She lives in Los Angeles.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Gritty, poetic, and illuminating.” —O Magazine

“A brilliant memoir.” —BookReporter

“A powerful, moving memoir of overcoming grief and loss.” —Booklist, Starred Review

“Vivid, real and gripping.”—Blackbook Magazine

“Forget everything you think you know about grief. Smith’s memoir is the most honest book I've ever read about how loss unmoors, challenges and changes you, written in prose so exquisite it could be poetry. Dazzlingly brave and absolutely true.” —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You

“Gorgeously written, compulsively readable, and heartbreakingly true, The Rules of Inheritance is a small masterpiece of honesty. Anyone who's lost a parent will find themselves in this story. I couldn't stop reading it, and was sorry when it had to end." —Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters

Reading Group Guide

A resonant memoir of the ways untimely good–byes echo through the years by a writer who has considered every nuance of grief.

At age fourteen, Claire Bidwell Smith–an only child– learned that both of her parents had cancer. The fear of becoming a family of one before she came of age compels Claire to make a series of fraught choices, set against the glittering backdrop of New York and Los Angeles–and the pall of regret. When the inevitable happens, and Claire is alone in the world, she is inconsolable at the revelation that suddenly she is no one’s special person. It is only when Claire eventually falls in love, marries, and becomes a mother that she emerges from the fog of grief.

Defying a conventional framework, this story is told using the five stages of grief as a window into Smith’s experience. As in the very best memoirs, the author’s powerful and exquisite writing renders personal events into universal experience.


Claire Bidwell Smith is a Los Angeles—based writer and editor. She writes for The Huffington Post, Blackbook, Yoga Journal, Chicago Public Radio, and the award–winning blog

Was writing this book in some respects part of your grieving process? Was it difficult to relive, and to put into writing, moments where you made choices you might now wish you hadn’t?

Writing this book was definitely a step in my grieving process. Before this version I wrote two other versions which were, in fact, much more a part of the grieving process. I worked out a lot of feelings and emotions in those drafts, and writing them helped me achieve the perspective I was able to have in this version. At times it was very challenging to relive some of the moments in my life that I wrote about. I found myself crying in coffee shops a lot! I don’t really have many regrets about the decisions I’ve made in my life. I feel that I’ve really come to terms with how and why I made those decisions and have been able to forgive myself for a lot of the sad moments.

You’re a mother yourself now. Has motherhood changed the way you think about your own mother? Your father? Are there any aspects of parenthood in particular you think you might have approached differently had you not lost your own parents at such a young age?

Becoming a mother changed everything I thought I knew about my parents. The act of becoming a parent myself both sharpened the pain of losing my own parents and also softened it. In some ways it has been more painful to realize exactly how much I lost, now that I know how much I love and give to my daughter. But at the same time, I’ve been given back my parents. I hear them every day in my voice and actions as I interact with my child, and I catch constant glimpses of what my early years with my parents must have been like. Over all, it’s been incredibly healing to become a mother. Because of the loss of my parents I am very present to the time I have with my daughter and husband, and for that, I am grateful.

What made you decide to structure this book nonlinearly?

I wanted to write a book about loss and grief that would be helpful to others who were experiencing something similar. In my line of work as a therapist, clients often approach me about the five stages. They have a lot of questions and concerns about how they are working through them. I wanted to illustrate exactly how fluid the five stages of grief are. They are meant as guides, not laws. A grieving person may experience all the stages, or just one. The feelings and emotions may not arrive in an orderly fashion, yet so many times people are thrown off by this. I thought that by using my own experience as an example it would be the most effective way for people to realize that there is no right way to grieve.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a book about the afterlife. I’m on a personal exploration to figure out what I believe happens next. From psychic mediums and rabbis to past–life therapists and near–death survivors, I am delving heavily into the realm of the other side. It’s fascinating so far!

  • This memoir is divided into five parts, each part structured around one of Elizabeth Kübler–Ross’s five stages of grief. What does this framing lend to the narrative?
  • In the passage where Claire and Michel are discussing his father and her mother, the author says: “But the thing I do not realize is that, no matter how I feel in this moment, I do not really think my mother will die.” Can you identify with this kind of denial? How do you think this affects Claire’s actions over the coming weeks?
  • When Claire describes her longing for Christopher, she says, “ I don’t even know why I want him so badly. Because I’m lonely? Because my mother is dying and touching boys feels like the opposite of that?” Why do you think she wants him so badly? Is it simply a distraction for her, or is it something more?
  • Claire dates Colin for a long time after her mother’s death. How did the course of their relationship change in tandem with Claire’s grief? Do you believe that they helped each other heal from their losses in some respects?
  • How do the three chapters that make up “Part 1: Denial” mesh with the epigraph for that part? Do you see a common thread running throughout these chapters? What about for the other four parts and their chapters?
  • The author remarks on “the power people have to unlock each other” more than once. Are there other examples of this in the memoir aside from the ones the she specifically notes? Have you ever had a similar experience?
  • In a passage where the author describes her her grief, “a giant, sad whale,” she writes: “Grief whispers in my ear that no one understands me.” Do you believe that it’s truly possible to understand another person’s grief? What techniques does the author use to illustrate her own grief, to draw the reader into it?
  • Consider the chapter where Claire travels to Malapascua. Do you understand her reasons for going there? In the moment, does she understand what it is that compels her to go there? What is it that finally stops her from diving with the thresher sharks?
  • More than once, the author notes that “we always have choices.” The idea of choice –– and whether we have it or not –– is a recurring theme in this memoir. What do you think its significance is to the book as a whole?
  • How does Claire’s relationship with her father change after her mother’s death? At one point she says that, had her mother not died, she never would have gotten to really know her father. How is her father’s death different from her mother’s death to her?
  • Consider Claire’s reaction to the news that she is pregnant with her daughter, Veronica, and also to the news of her cyst. Can you understand why she feels so sure that everything will go wrong? She says “everything I’ve done in the last few years, all the work I’ve done to find peace and stability and hope, is crashing to pieces around me. I’m shocked by how easily I am being demolished by this.” Why do you think this moment is so difficult for her?
  • The chapter where Claire goes to Chicago to meet Greg closes with a passage from the journal Claire’s mother left for her: “Find yourself and you’ll find your other self.” Do you agree? How does this resonate with part five’s overarching theme of acceptance? Do you believe that Claire has found herself?
  • Discuss the honesty of this memoir. Claire’s mother writes to her: “Get to know yourself deep, deep down, where no one knows you.” Do you think the author has achieved this kind of self–knowledge? Would it be possible to write a truly honest memoir without knowing yourself deeply?
  • Customer Reviews

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    The Rules of Inheritance 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
    LaurenNY More than 1 year ago
    Claire's memoir is an amazing story of a young girl who's life is touched by cancer when she is a teenager through her early twenties, loosing both mother and father to the disease by the time she's 22. Through painful paths, relationships, living and rebelling this coming of age story tells the story of a woman who is coming into her life with the heavy weight of doing it alone. It will rock you to your core and in the end give you a sense of healing. I highly highly recommend this book!
    T_Nation More than 1 year ago
    This was one of the extremely moving and honest books I have read in a long time. It is a must read for anyone who is looking to be inspired and find strength. There is no words to describe how moving it is to read about loss and love from such an honest and vulnerable author. I have known Claire for years and it she continues to amaze me with everything she writes. This book truly inspired me to be a better friend, daughter, sister, and mother and to appreciate everything I have.
    CarrollM More than 1 year ago
    Despite my intention to let it wait, instead of too much turkey, I devoured an advance copy of Claire¿s book, in stolen moments over half of a family-filled holiday weekend. ¿Edgy¿. ¿Gritty¿. ¿Poignant¿. ¿Brave¿. ¿Remarkable¿. ¿Raw¿. ¿Searingly-honest¿. ¿Un-put-downable¿. These words are sure to be used over and over again in the rave reviews inevitably to come for this remarkable piece of writing. Those familiar with her blog may well assume ¿Ah, I read along as this whole thing was unfolding. I know the story. I know the ending.¿ But whether we happen to know Claire or not, we know the ending ¿ she tells us herself part way through the beginning. Unlike many other blog-to-book authors, Claire has managed to transform her story from as-it-happened to as-it-needed-to-be-written in a manner which clearly also transformed the author herself. We witnesses to the story as it unfolded, might not have realized that we were witnessing another metamorphosis entirely. The cliché ¿things happen for a reason¿ is ¿trite but true¿¿for a reason. Who would Claire have been had this story not been hers? We will never know, nor will she. But those who discover and tumble along through her riveting account of this amazing journey will be forever seared by the ¿¿realness¿ of the experience. This memoir simply will not wait. No one who loves good writing should wait to read it.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    If you want to read a sad, depressing book, this is for you. You will cry and cry. I am an adult woman, my mom died ten years ago. It was awful. But what this young woman went through broke my heart. I wish I never read it.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Has i known this book was a memoir when i purchased on my e-reader I would have known better than to expect a happy or enlightening conclusion! The author takes on a miserable journey of the illness and subsequent deaths of her parents-we find this out very early on and have to endure the exteme sadness of her situation time and time again, The out of sequencing of the timeline makes it worse, like a macabre Groundhog Day, For me this only brought up the extreme sadness I experienced when my own parents died-With nothing to cheer for I just slogged through to the last two or three pages where the author is happily married with a new child, There is no where near the balance needed to make a reader endure such sadness page after page after page-You owe me another 200 pages where I get to see that in the end you are okay and how/why this occurs! The writer is an exellent one and maybe she needed to write this story for herself, Personally I think she has the talent to attract a large audience but this book did not demonstrate it at all-
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    An amazing writer with a courageous story. This would be a great read for bookclubs,anyone who is grieving, or college psychology courses.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This book touches you more than you will believe. Well-written and emotionally stirring.
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    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I just happened to pick up this book by accident. I am so glad I did...What an amazing, truthful, and beautifully written book !
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    For any woman who has lost her mother, this is a healing missive. Beautifully painful.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Very well written. Heart wrenching story.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Claire Bidwell Smith’s stunning debut, The Rules of Inheritance, is a powerful and gripping memoir. When Claire is the tender age of fourteen, both of her parents are diagnosed with cancer within months of each other. As her mother succumbs to the disease while Claire is in college, her life comes crashing in around her. The story is told not in a linear fashion, but rather through the five stages of grief. The author, with tremendous honesty and bravery, examines each stage. As we travel with Claire on this journey, which is simultaneously heart wrenching and inspiring, the reader is forever changed. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a loved one. The writing is brilliant and her story is gripping. The Rules of Inheritance wills stay with you long after you read the final, poignant page.
    BBR47 More than 1 year ago
    The Rules of Inheritance is an honest, at times heart-breaking, and ultimately motivating memoir of a young woman’s loss and her journey to begin to put her life together. While it may be viewed as a passage through the stages of grief, I found that to be a mistaken assumption. To me it represented an amazing story of an eighteen year old adrift, who finally finds her place in life despite significant odds that she would fall victim to a much worse fate. Ultimately, she even writes a book about it all, proving to us that she is a survivor. Thoughtful, honest and revealing.
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    Vivi45 More than 1 year ago
    This memoir was quite boring. The author could not stop grieving over the death of her parents,smokes heavily, becomes an alcoholic then finds happiness with a new man. I did not like the way she jumped around time- wise in this book. It started out strong but then became very difficult to finish....but I did.