The Divorce Papers, by Susan Reiger

Divorce PapersOne reason I love libraries is that I’ll try books on a whim: if I don’t like it, back it goes, no guilt involved. The cover of Susan Rieger’s début novel, Divorce Papers, caught my eye when I was browsing the library e-book catalogue; the blurb didn’t completely sell me on it, but hey, library! I placed a hold.

A few days later, Miss Bates tweeted a link to a HuffPo piece Rieger wrote on epistolary novels, and I was full of anticipation: I love epistolary novels. I zoomed through this book in three days, and I liked it a lot.

The Divorce Papers is a bit difficult to categorize: chick lit, women’s fiction, comedy of manners among upper-middle-class Northeasterners, workplace novel–it’s a little of all of those. And, of course, it’s epistolary: e-mails, notes, excerpts from the laws governing divorce in Rieger’s fictional state, and legal documents tell the story. (The epigraph is an appropriately legalistic passage from Dracula, also a novel-in-documents “given from the standpoints and within the range of knowledge of those who made them”). Despite the subject-matter, this novel is often funny; it’s also a comedy in the sense that the optimistic ending metes out justice in satisfying ways. It deals not only with the dissolution of a marriage, but with friendship, mentorship, parents and children, a web of happy, unhappy, vexed, complicated relationships.

The novel centers around Sophie Diehl, an almost-thirty criminal lawyer who gets roped into doing a divorce for Mia Durkheim, the daughter of the firm’s most important client. Sophie, unlucky in love and still not fully formed, struggling to get out from under the shadow of her “godlike” parents (her professor father is the “last great British Marxist historian,” her French mother a well-known crime novelist), is the chicklit element. But although she has a tendency to over-share with her boss/mentor/father-figure/crush David, she’s not a Bridget-Jones-style fuck-up. This isn’t a novel whose humor comes at its heroine’s expense, thank God. She’s smart and competent, though imperfect.

So is Mia, her client, angry at her husband, concerned about her daughter (the women’s fiction part of the novel): “Isn’t 10 years of adoration all a reasonable narcissist has any right to expect from a wife?” Mia asks. And Sophie’s friend Maggie, a happily-married stage actress. Even Fiona, Sophie’s work nemesis, isn’t unsympathetic. I believed in these women.

The novel’s men seem less . . .  variable. There are a whole lot of inattentive fathers, for instance. On the other hand, many of these men do grow and change. It’s just that, aside from David (who is a kind of substitute father for Sophie, her own being distant for much of the book) we don’t see them in much detail. There are many messages from Mia to Sophie, but I never got a good sense of what the failing marriage looks like from husband Daniel’s point of view. Is he just a jerk? I would have liked to see more from his point of view, but with Sophie as the book’s center, that isn’t possible.

One of the great things about the epistolary form is the different angles it can provide on the same event: Sophie writes to her boss about work one way, to her friend Maggie another, often more vulnerable one. At the same time, it can be a bit distancing–rather than the exchange of a dialogue, we get extensive passages from one voice, then another. I found myself interested in these characters, but not very emotionally involved (this could just be me; I’ve been having this reading experience often lately).

There are a lot of legal documents here, sometimes too many, and with some repetitive bits. I admit I skimmed: did I really need to see a blank divorce worksheet or three different versions of proposed settlement numbers? Except maybe I did, though skimming them was fine. The juxtaposition of the Narraganset legal code with the nasty notes Mia and Daniel left for each other; the reduction of a 20-year relationship to blanks on a worksheet; and the incommensurability of the legal process with the hurt, anger and confusion of husband, wife and daughter revealed something meaningful about the difficulty of divorce.

I usually wouldn’t comment on a novelist’s personal life in a review, but Rieger’s acknowledgments and biography suggest that she knows whereof she writes when it comes to divorce, remarriage and her characters’ work lives. She’s a lawyer, she’s worked in academia, and she thanks her step-children. Her daughter is the novelist Maggie Pouncey, whose book I’m now interested in (and that led me to this hilarious review–Amazon as Rate My Professor?). Rieger is married to David Denby, who was previously married to novelist Cathleen Schine (oddly, when I was thinking of read-alikes for this book, Schine’s Three Weissmanns of Westport came to mind). I think it takes balls to publish your first novel when your daughter and your husband’s ex beat you to it.

Apparently Rieger is working on a sequel. I’m in. I want to see what happens to Sophie and her circle next.

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6 Responses to The Divorce Papers, by Susan Reiger

  1. willaful says:

    My mom works on legal documents; I wonder if she would find this amusing or a busman’s holiday.

    Speaking of epistolary novels, have you ever read Steve Kluger’s Almost Like Being in Love? It’s adorable.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      1. Well, there are more inter-office memos (slightly implausible as such, but fun to read) than actual legal documents. She might like it. The legal things seemed well done.

      2. No, but it’s on my list. I enjoyed the Kluger book I did read (now can’t think of the title).

  2. sonomalass says:

    I wonder if my library has this in digital format. Worth a try, if it does. I can replace Longbourn.

  3. Janine Ballard says:

    This sounds interesting. I might try it, if I can find time.

  4. willaful says:

    I’m about halfway through this and enjoying it. (I confess, I’ve skimmed most of the forms as well. Perhaps interesting structurally, but way too dull to read word for word.)

    I think it interesting that her piece on the epistolary novel doesn’t mention what seems clearly her greatest inspiration: Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufmann.

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