Monday, February 25, 2013


The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings was nothing that I expected.  I had seen the movie previews, so I knew that the wife died.  I thought that the story would start with her death, and move on from there, with the husband and children learning to live without her.

Instead, the wife, Joanie, had been in a boating accident before the story started, and lingered on life support through most of the book.  The story focuses on the husband, Matt, realizing who his wife really was.  Matt knew that Joanie was a party girl and a daredevil, and he seemed to like that about her.  Matt was happy to spend most of his time working, and leave Joanie in charge of the child rearing.  As the story continues, he begins to realize that there was not a whole lot of child rearing going on.  Of course, he would have known that earlier if he had been paying attention.

Matt is a native Hawaiian, and his great-grandparents were very large landowners.  The land has been held in trust, but due to the death of a lifetime beneficiary, the trust is terminating, and the remaining beneficiaries plan to sell the land.  Matt stands to receive about 1/8 of the proceeds from the sale, and one bidder has offered half a billion dollars.  The other twenty beneficiaries stand to receive about 1/24 of the proceeds each.  Matt grapples with what to do, as the authority to decide whether to accept the offer or not lies with him. 

As an estate planning attorney, I was really interested in the whole disposition of the trust asset aspect of the story, and was disappointed that Hemmings only skimmed the surface there.  If Matt really had the ability to say what happened to the land due to his 1/8th interest, then I would have liked to have heard more about the tension.  I don't see how a 1/8th trust beneficiary would ever have the ability to hold up a half billion dollar sale, to the detriment of twenty other beneficiaries.  The trustee would have been the one in charge of making the decisions, not the beneficiary.  The only way that I can make sense of this part of the story is to conclude that the beneficiaries created a corporation to receive their trust interests, and put a buy sell agreement in place that required the approval of a 90% super majority for a sale.  In the end, it seemed to me like Matt made a selfish decision in doing what he thought was right for his life, with no regard for what might have been right for the other beneficiaries.  If my thought process about how he got his authority is correct, then those other beneficiaries must have regretted signing the buy sell that they must have approved less than a year earlier.

I was complaining about this part of the story with my dad, who is an estate planning attorney also, and with my mom, who is not, and my mom concluded that I had read a different book than she read.  She liked hearing about the Hawaiian history, and didn't even notice the minutia that I found so distracting.  Although this book was on my TBR list for the Off the Shelf Challenge, it is also the book that The Typical Book Group is discussing next month.  My guess is that they'll be on my mom's side. 

In spite of these criticisms, there was a lot that Hemmings did right in The Descendants.  I thought that she did a great job of portraying Matt's complicated issues with money.  She also showed the changing relationships between Matt and his daughters in a way that was odd but interesting.  The story would not have been the same without the Sid character, which was a surprise because "the teenager's boyfriend" could have been just an accessory.

Next Up On Paper:  The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

Next Up on CD:  Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

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