Title: The Divorce Papers
Author: Susan Rieger
No. of Pages: 480
Origins: The Crown Publishing Group
Release Date: 18 March 2014
Bottom Line: Cute but sad
“Twenty-nine-year-old Sophie Diehl is happy toiling away as a criminal law associate at an old line New England firm where she very much appreciates that most of her clients are behind bars. Everyone at Traynor, Hand knows she abhors face-to-face contact, but one weekend, with all the big partners away, Sophie must handle the intake interview for the daughter of the firm’s most important client. After eighteen years of marriage, Mayflower descendant Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim has just been served divorce papers in a humiliating scene at the popular local restaurant, Golightly’s. She is locked and loaded to fight her eminent and ambitious husband, Dr. Daniel Durkheim, Chief of the Department of Pediatric Oncology, for custody of their ten-year-old daughter Jane—and she also burns to take him down a peg. Sophie warns Mia that she’s never handled a divorce case before, but Mia can’t be put off. As she so disarmingly puts it: It’s her first divorce, too.
Debut novelist Susan Rieger doesn’t leave a word out of place in this hilarious and expertly crafted debut that shines with the power and pleasure of storytelling. Told through personal correspondence, office memos, emails, articles, and legal papers, this playful reinvention of the epistolary form races along with humor and heartache, exploring the complicated family dynamic that results when marriage fails. For Sophie, the whole affair sparks a hard look at her own relationships—not only with her parents, but with colleagues, friends, lovers, and most importantly, herself. Much like Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Divorce Papers will have you laughing aloud and thanking the literature gods for this incredible, fresh new voice in fiction.”
Thoughts: The format of The Divorce Papers takes some adjustment time. Some of the documents are only a few lines long, while the others take multiple pages. The narrative waffles between dry legalese to witty flirtation to workplace politics. Each format uses a distinctive tone, and switching between them all can be a slightly dizzying experience. It also disrupts one’s reading pace as the legal briefs require more attention than the emails, for obvious reasons. None of these issues is a reason to skip this delightful book, however. Once one adapts to this unusual narrative method, the story flows, Sophie charms, and Mia kicks some major butt.
Sophie is a bit of a conundrum. She has a glibness about her that can be somewhat off-putting. She does not have the gravitas that befits a criminal lawyer, let alone a divorce lawyer, making jokes that one could easily construe as tasteless or at the very least ill-timed. Her emails read like journal entries or stream-of-consciousness emotion dumps to her best friend rather than the correspondingly thoughtful conversations from said friend. She’s hyper and high-maintenance. She acts more like a lawyer fresh out of law school rather than someone with multiple cases and several years under her belt. For all that, she is infectious and charming, self-deprecating when she needs to be and equally boastful when the timing is right. She is a force of nature on the page, and it takes no great stretch of the imagination to imagine her energy and high spirits in person. The image one gets of Sophie’s personality is as complete a picture as one could possibly get without meeting her in real life and created entirely through letters and notes. It is a more than impressive writing feat.
For a novel told solely through legal briefs, email, notes, depositions, and memorandum, The Divorce Papers is effective at developing its characters and creating empathy for them. The stultifying legal paperwork offsets the somewhat free-associating emails and memorandum Sophie tends to write. Balancing the two ends of the spectrum are Mia’s obvious pain, confusion, and anger. Mia bridges the gap between the cold calculations of the negotiations and Sophie’s flippancy to create poignancy and remind readers that divorce is messy and ugly and harms all parties involved. The result is a humorous and heartbreaking look at divorce from multiple angles with greater insight into the reasons why divorce proceedings turn so nasty and the impact they have on the families as well as the lawyers involved.