Bookworm: Reading ‘Heiresses’ could feel like a million bucks

‘The Grieving Brain’ might be helpful for you in time, but probably nowhere near immediately.

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies”

  • By Laura Thompson
  • c. 2022, St. Martin’s Press
  • $29.99, 384 pages

So, you just received a few million dollars. You won the lottery, hit the jackpot, married well, invested right, found a long-lost rich aunt, whatever. Congratulations, but now what? Throw a party for your hundred new besties at one of the mansions you’ll buy? Or is that money doing fine in a bank? Maybe you need to read “Heiresses” by Laura Thompson, to be sure you’re prepared.

"Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies" by Laura Thompson.

British and American literature are rife with women who are rich, spoiled, and spurned by men who seem to prefer their poorer sisters. But why a book that focuses on women? Surely, there were spoiled, rich men around, right?

True, but Thompson points out that in early times, no matter what their status might be when they married, women cleaved unto their husbands and lost their own identities. In many cases then, a husband made out like the proverbial bandit when such unions elevated his status as well as his finances. Sometimes, a woman ended up better, too, but that was often rare – at least early-on.

Take, for instance, Mary Davies

At the age of 12, Mary either owned or would own most of London, as well as much of the surrounding area. Of course, she couldn’t remain single – it was the late 1600s, after all – and so she was basically put up for auction by her own mother. Fortunately, the winner was a decent man but when he died young, Mary’s family stepped in and declared her mentally incompetent in order to seize what was left of her inheritance.

“The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss” author Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD.

And then there was the whole Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire thing, when American heiresses of the Rockefeller-Vanderbilt-Astor ilk began searching for their own happily-ever-afters among British princes and lords. Landing a title was good then. It was even more of a feather in Mama’s cap.

Barbara Hutton’s money wasn’t good company. Dorothy Paget never married, scandalously preferring her female lovers. Gloria Vanderbilt reinvented herself. More than one heiress couldn’t hack the life, says Thompson, and some used their money for good.

A little windfall is nice, especially if you’re not expecting it, eh? So what do you do with it? Read “Heiresses,” and then think carefully.

Granted, your windfall won’t be in the gazillion$, as it was with the women author Laura Thompson profiles in this sometimes uneven book. You won’t have to contend with a lifetime of wealth – and contend is what happened, as Thompson shows. You won’t even need a staff to fetch you the illusion of happiness. Just remember that most heiresses you’ll read about were unhappy, lonely, love-hungry, and afraid of all the wrong things. Yes, their lives were different than yours, but not always in a good way.

Still, go ahead and admit it. As Thompson says in her introduction, who wouldn’t like to try the life of an heiress? Indeed, this book can make years’ worth of money sound like cautious fun, like a two-year vacation, like never watching your checkbook balance. And reading “Heiresses” could feel like a million bucks.

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“The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss”

  • By Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD
  • c. 2022, HarperOne
  • $28.99, 236 pages

You never remember it immediately. Every morning, there’s a four-second lag between opening your eyes and the realization that someone you love has died, as if your brain is trying to protect you, however briefly. Yes, day-to-day, you’re obviously still struggling. You have blanks in your thinking and holes in your memory and “The Grieving Brain” by Mary-Frances O’Connor, PhD may help you see why.

"The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss" by Mary-Frances Connor, PhD.

When you lose someone, it’s almost as though your internal GPS has gone haywire. So many things and emotions are where they used to be, but something – someone – is missing and your brain continues to recalculate. Your missing loved one is here, but not here, and dealing with that loss, says O’Connor, can feel like trying to travel through two different worlds. Your brain needs time to “develop new predictions” and adapt to a new normal.

Grief can do other odd things that might make you think you’re “crazy.” Believing that you’ve seen a loved one or heard him is one, and it’s common. Anger is another, though you may not understand where to lay blame. It’s even normal to grieve for people you didn’t personally know, such as a celebrity. O’Connor says that evolution contributes to these kinds of “magical” thinking, and that animals do it, too.

How your loved one died may change how you grieve and how your neural system is re-wired. Recalling the death or the notification of it or holding onto “incompatible beliefs” are both ways for the brain to learn to accept the loss you’ve experienced.

“Heiresses: The Lives of the Million Dollar Babies” author Laura Thompson.

The main thing to remember is this: grief is very individual. There is no “prescription” for it, no set time, and no chronology to it, there’s no “clear beginning, middle, and end that we may hope for...” You just have to maintain “flexibility,” ride the “oscillation” of it, and if all else fails and you’re completely feeling stuck, seek help.

“If we never allow the feelings of grief to surface,” says O’Connor, “and we cannot contemplate them... they might continue to plague us.”

Let’s start here: if you are brand-newly bereaved or are anticipating that you will be soon, “The Grieving Brain” is a big NOT YET. You’re not ready for this book.

As author Mary-Frances O’Connor PhD points out in many ways, you’re likely not thinking quite straight. This book will only make things worse, with bounce-around chapters that mix multiple metaphors with personal stories with new-age ideas and science, all lobbed fast at readers with grief brain who may not yet be able to catch these hardballs. It doesn’t help that the information can go from grade-school-level explanation to college-level lecture, sometimes in the same sentence. That sweet spot of learning can be lost.

Another thing: O’Connor says she’s not offering advice. So why even read this book?

To understand, but don’t worry about that until you’ve lived with, dined with, and slept with grief for awhile or you’ll just be more muddled. “The Grieving Brain” might be helpful for you in time, but probably nowhere near immediately.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.