Divorce Papers

9780804137447_p0_v1_s260x420From its title, Susan Rieger’s The Divorce Papers sounded like a quirky Sophie Kinsella-type novel, light and funny.  It is not.  Neither is it a dry angst-ridden melodrama.  So what is it? An epistolary – a story set in letters revealing a progression of developments through its characters.  I started the book late at night, expecting to preview whether or not I wanted to actually read it – two hours later, I was half way through.

Rieger’s, a graduate of Mount Holyoke and a former law professor at Columbia and Yale, uses her background to offer a lively explanation of how lawyers interact with their clients and with each other, while inserting personal details rounding out the characters background.  Not limited to letters, the story included emails, court documents, and legalese.  If you are a fan of the popular television series, “The Good Wife,” you will appreciate the story behind the story that affects the case.

Sophie Diehl, a young attorney specializing in defending criminal cases at a prestigious New England law firm, reluctantly agrees to conduct the initial interview for a divorce case, since the firm’s lead attorney is on vacation.  The client is the daughter of one of the firm’s most profitable clients, and he cannot and should not be kept waiting.  Sophie immediately establishes a rapport with forty-two year old Mia Meikeljohn Durkeim, the wife of a prominent medical doctor who is having an affair, and remains the lead attorney – despite all her efforts to transfer the case to Fiona, the firm’s experienced divorce lawyer.

As the case progresses through shock, acrimony, greed, and a number of other horrors in the settlement of dissolution, the information load can get overwhelming.  At one point, although it has been a few years, I felt the anguish of office politics and the discomfort of emails flying back and forth to resolve issues.  When Rieger included the simulated versions of client billing, references to case law, and protracted details on relevant deliberations that provided precedence, I admit I skipped through to get back to the story.   Sophie’s personal life – unsuitable boyfriends, a French mother who writes mystery books, an English father who holds a prestigious chair at a university, a friend who acts in the Williamstown theater – counter her daily business interactions with colleagues and clients.   Happily, all ends well – both the divorce case in its resolution and Sophie’s life and career.

Alan Cheuse’s review for NPR influenced my reading of this book, and his review  – All Sides of a Divorce, Told in Fresh Lively ‘Papers’ – has more details, if you need them before you decide to read this entertaining book that will convince you to avoid divorce at any cost – or maybe never go through it again.

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The Forgotten Waltz

The delusion that an extramarital affair will offer another chance for true love is neatly dissolved in Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz.  Although the title may promise romance, Enright sticks to the mundane aspects of the affair’s scheduling and the deceit, adding some humor to the reality.

Gina Moynihan, a Dublin professional in her early thirties, confesses her affair at the beginning of the novel.  Her lover, Sean, a fellow worker who lives down the street from her sister, is married and has a daughter, Evie.  Of course, his wife doesn’t understand him.  Gina’s husband is the unfortunate betrayed innocent bystander.  The book has Gina flashing back to her first meeting with Sean, their work together, and their eventual secret meetings in hotels. Her mother’s death escalates the inevitable exposure.

Having an affair is not easy, and involves more than having the right underwear – it can be expensive…

“…everyone is fighting with me about money…I should sit down and calculate it out at so much per kiss…hundreds of thousands. Because we took it too far.  We should have stuck to car parks and hotel bedrooms…”

But Enright also laughs at the advantages…

“…all you have to do is sleep with somebody and get caught and you never have to see your in-laws again…It’s the nearest thing to magic I have yet found.”

Enright has Gina tell her story in the first person; the perspective is hers alone – what she thinks and what she thinks other are thinking.  After Sean and Gina leave their marriages and move in together – into Gina’s dead mother’s house – the relationship settles into familiarity without the passion, and Gina discovers that Sean has had other affairs – even propositioning her sister.

“I thought it would be a different life, but sometimes it is like the same life in a dream {with} a different man coming in the door…”

The affair ripples through everyone in their lives, and Sean’s daughter, Evie, clearly resents Gina’s intrusion.   Evie offers a final verdict on Gina’s actions that is devastating. The ending is ambiguous, but tragic – and Gina as the other woman, seems destined for an unredeemed future.

“Lovers can be replaced, I think – a little bitterly – but not children.”

As an Irish writer who won the 2007 Man Booker Prize for The Gathering, Enright includes the requisite Irish love of whiskey with its consequences, and the morbid angst over family and friends.  But she also offers gems of literary insight and language; in The Forgotten Waltz she attacks the often glib enterprise of infidelity – at anyone’s expense – and creates an insightful examination of its effects.

Once Upon a Time There Was You – Elizabeth Berg

“You don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it
You gave me your love but I misused it
 I never knew how lonely loneliness could be…”


Divorce is hard, but being alone is harder in Elizabeth Berg’s Once Upon a Time There Was You.  Irene and John wait to get married; then both almost flee on their wedding day.  For eight years, they have a life with their daughter Sadie before divorcing.  Ten years later, Sadie finds herself juggling her parents’ feelings for each other, as she shuffles back and forth between their lives and tries to assert her own independence.  When she survives a rogue abduction, Sadie inadvertently offers her parents a reason to reconnect.

With Elizabeth Berg, it’s more about the people than their stories; more about how what’s going on inside their heads is relatable to the reader; more introspection than action.  Berg does not attempt solutions.

“Some {people} walk purposefully, sure of where they are going.  Some walk aimlessly, in no hurry to get anywhere. Others are frankly lost.”

The story gets a little lost in all the soul-searching, but, as always, Berg offers poignant moments.

Related Review: Elizabeth Berg’s “The Last Time I Saw You”


Revenge may be sweet, or best served cold – but the target may not even notice. Christie Clancey’s New York Times essay,

Revenge of the Friend

humorously tells of a professional trainer trying to torture her best friend’s ex-husband when he shows up for her spinning class, with his new girlfriend.

When she directs the lothario to the most uncomfortable bike with “narrow saddle…as hard as concrete,” for thirty minutes of hellish biking to the tune of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” she hoped for an exercise meltdown. Instead, he was oblivious to her ire, and thanked her for the “best workout…in a long time.”

Unless you plan to leave a horse’s head in the bed, revenge is probably not worth the effort.

Labor Day

Divorce is always hard on children, but when Adele, Henry’s mother, decides to harbor escaped convict Frank Chambers in her home on Labor Day weekend, thirteen year old Henry’s life gets better – for a while.

Told in Henry’s young  tentative voice, Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day begins as a familiar story of a mentally ravaged, divorced mother trying to survive.   Adele may be the extreme example of a shattered life.   She hides in her house, fearful of everyone.   Maynard reveals later that she has good reason, but her depression only motivates Henry to try to make his mother happy.

On a rare outing to get food – tomato soup and fish sticks – Henry and Adele meet Frank, a convicted murderer – bleeding from jumping out a hospital window to escape after having an appendectomy.   Adele and Frank instantly connect; his compassion and gentility meet her loneliness – and then, there is the sex too.

Over a long steamy Labor Day weekend, Frank becomes lover to Adele and father to Henry, teaching him how to catch a ball and how to bake a peach pie.

This is more than hostages with Stockholm syndrome. The connection grows into a pseudo family that Frank offers to legitimize with marriage, new identities, and escape to a new life in Canada.

But Henry vacillates between trust and paranoia over losing his mother. He is 13, and he’s scared –  mostly for himself. When a new girl in town feeds his fears and sense of inadequacy, the balloon bursts.

In the end, Maynard fast forwards the story to a satisfying ending and delivers a poignant story – soon to be a movie.  If you wonder why it takes so long for everyone to get their act together – well, it just takes some people longer to grow up.