Who Shall Inherit?
March 2018

From Shakespeare’s King Lear and Hamlet to the Victorian Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations to today’s wildly popular Inheritance Cycle, inheritance has always been a popular theme in literature. No wonder. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by identity and control; wealth and power; the Victorian “marriage market”; disinheritance and usurpation; parental love and approval—and plain old luck?

Here are some wonderful novels dealing with this theme.

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Perhaps the most famous inheritance novel, Bleak House features Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a tangle of disputed wills and disrupted inheritance that ties up the High Court of Chancery for decades. Two fascinating narrators tell the tale of the long-buried secrets of Esther Sommerson’s life and a generations-long family lawsuit.  A host of unforgettable characters.  Romance, mystery, comedy, and satire.  Read more here . . .  
  • A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Beautifully written Pulitzer Prize winning retelling of the King Lear plot, when a modern-day father decides to divide his farm among three daughters. The New York Times called it “powerful and poignant.” Read more here . . .  (And, for other modern updates of Shakespeare, see Vinegar Girl and Nutshell.)
  • The Witch of Exmoor by Margaret Drabble. Postmodern family drama of a family with a crazy rich mother—full of satire, humor, and self-conscious realism, in which the narrator breaks into the story to comment or offer commentary and alternative plot lines. Delightful characters and rather melodramatic plot.
  • The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.  Debut novel about four adult siblings and the fate of the shared inheritance that has shaped their choices and their lives. Captivating and funny. “Humor and delightful irony abound in this lively first novel.” (New York Times Book Review)  Read more here . . . 
  • A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass. A world-famous writer dies, leaving his estate to his personal assistant/ caretaker—a richly plotted novel of friendship and love, artistic ambition, the perils of celebrity, and the power of an unexpected legacy. “A fascinating look at a world in which a creative artist becomes a hot property to be both honored and exploited . . . A compelling story with fully realized characters.” (Booklist)  See also . .
  • This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. Hilarious book about a seriously dysfunctional family forced to spend seven days together after the death of their father. “A compulsively readable, laugh-out-loud funny novel . . . Tropper is wickedly funny, a master of the cutting one-liner that makes you both cringe and crack up.” (Amazon Best Book of the Month) And also a good movie. Read more here . . .

These are just a few of my favorite inheritance novels. Check out this website for many more. What are some of yours? And why do you suppose the theme is so popular?