& Review: The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

Book Title: The Divorce Papers
Author: Susan Rieger
Pages: 480
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Crown
Date Published: March 18th, 2014
Date Read: June 20th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, borrowed from work
Cover Love: Cute, clever. A little girly, what with the pink background and twirly font. Interesting, and definitely could have been worse.
Given Synopsis: “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, BernadetteThe Divorce Papers will have you laughing aloud and thanking the literature gods for this incredible, fresh new voice in fiction.”
What I’d Add: This is a very wordy way to describe this book! I’d subtract, rather than add to this summation of events (we don’t really know how WASP-y the Durkheims are, or how exactly Sophie is swayed to stick with it. You read the book to find out that stuff).
It’s Sorta Like: It’s reminiscent of Where’d You Go Bernadette, but it comes off as far less clever and way less funny. It’s the fun, modern epistolary novel if it were smashed together with the mail room of a law firm.
My Grade: C-
Review: The blurb says this book is “told through personal correspondence, office memos, emails, articles, and legal papers.” The numbers might not come out exactly to this, but it definitely feels like the story is told 25% in e-mails between best friends Sophie and Maggie, letters between family members involved in the divorce, and e-mails (mostly business-minded) between Sophie and her boss, and then 75% legal papers…mind-numbing legalese whom no one wants to slog through. Not even lawyers, I think. There are offers and counter-offers, pages of Narragansett law as it pertains to divorce and division of property, and case studies. Yep, full case studies of past cases that will supposedly help Sophie win her case. And they’re not summaries of these documents, they’re the whole shebang. Sometimes in teeny-tiny print.

There are twinges of plot, of human interest in this legal slog. Sophie’s own parents are strict and divorced. Her best friend, who had terrible parents, keeps her in check in regards to complaining about her parents (which does not stop Sophie from whining about them). Sophie has a couple of love interests, a little drama that runs parallel to her case. I was often (scratch that: always) more interested to find out about Sophie’s flawed friends and boyfriends than skimming through another legal-heavy document. You do a lot of skimming here, which is never what an author wants or a book deserves. Unless you’re interested in the legal system (maybe you’re a part of it yourself or you gobble up cop and lawyer shows like there’s no tomorrow), the legal parts of this legal-heavy book aren’t interesting.

The book also suffers from a lack of story arc. Sure, a divorce starts, a divorce ends, feeling are hurt in between, yadda yadda yadda. But there is no climax. There is no moment where tension ratchets up, where something truly bad is going to happen and someone saves the day. Really, nothing remarkable happens. The Durkheims are privileged. The word “WASP” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I’ve always known it’s short code for snobby people, but I always forget it’s actually an acronym for something) is mentioned more than once. Their struggle is disliking each other and wanting a divorce. Sophie’s main struggle is that she has Parental Issues, which differ from Daddy Issues because she also has issues with Mommy. At some bits where there were interesting plot points, they get dropped. There’s a sobering storyline having to do with Sophie’s mother and Sophie’s boss….and it’s never resolved. At one point it’s just never mentioned again. Which is so frustrating, because it’s the personal stuff that gives you a break from reading another legal paper. There’s too much court order, not enough personality.

I normally love the modern epistolary form (I say modern because in the epistolary novels I had to read in college, it was all 17th and 18th century goings-on). Night Film by Maria Pessl incorporates some epistolary form nicely. But it was a narrative first, and the articles/musical pieces just added color to the mood of the novel. Divorce Papers is too padded with law. There’s not a story here, even though the synopsis claims there to be one. The idea is nice – a divorce told through letters – which sounds like it might humanize the legal system, tell the story of the families involved, both on the lawyer side and client side. But it does quite the opposite. By including ALL papers needed in a divorce, all you’re reading is one big court case. As someone who casually watches Law & Order when its showing reruns on TV, I’m not one to pour over legal documents, trying to suss a story from it.

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