The Divorce Papers, by Susan Rieger, is an epistolary novel that tells the story of a young criminal attorney, Sophie Diehl, who is assigned a divorce case very much against her will. Wealthy, middle-aged Mia Meiklejohn is being divorced by her husband, a paediatric oncologist. Sophie is assigned her intake interview – an administrative task – because no-one else is around, but Mia is so impressed that she specifically requests Sophie as her attorney, despite being aware that she has no suitable experience. Through legal memos, newspaper cuttings, emails, handwritten notes, and sundry other documents, Rieger tells the story of Sophie a) learning how to carry out all the assorted tasks necessary during a divorce, and b) coping with her own ill-advised romantic decisions. On top of this, the divorce case provokes upsetting memories of her own parents’ divorce when she was a preteen, which she has not dealt with at all. I first heard of this when Melanie reviewed it at Grab the Lapels, and I enjoyed it just as much as I expected. I have an extreme weakness for epistolary fiction, plus, although I am not a lawyer, I find the detail involved in this kind of thing genuinely fascinating.
This novel has been panned on Goodreads by people who weren’t expecting an epistolary novel entitled The Divorce Papers to literally contain divorce papers, so if you’re leery of picking up a novel with whole pages about financial settlements, approach with caution. In contrast, I loved all the details – the clues that Rieger seeds amongst the legal memos and case histories – and the way they contributed to the overall plot. For example, there’s a whole subplot about whether Mia will be able to claim reimbursement for all the years she spent being the sole breadwinner while her husband pursued fancy, low-paying fellowships that a single man would never have been able to live off of. Sophie is considering this professionally at the same time as she’s trying to decide what she is/is not willing to sacrifice in her private life to attract and keep a boyfriend. Mia gave up years of her own career, trading in a fairly lucrative position, to move for her husband’s job and help him keep the roof over his head – and now she is being cheated on and dumped in her forties, without any immediate way of supporting herself and their daughter Jane. Is that really what Sophie wants? (She certainly seems to for a while, engaging in a bewildering relationship with a handsome but flaky actor, but she wises up towards the end).
In addition to the divorce case itself, and Sophie’s love life, the novel has a third plot running through. Sophie is assigned the divorce case over the head of extremely experienced divorce lawyer Fiona, who is absolutely livid. The workplace politics and general fallout from this situation was really interesting to read, and I would have loved some more focus on this. At the start of the novel, the reader is naturally inclined to side with Sophie, the closest thing the book has to a first person narrator – but as it progresses, we get more of Fiona’s perspective, and we start to see that she might have a point. That’s a clever thing to do when we have so much of Sophie’s own inner voice through her emails, and all we really get from Fiona is clipped, formal professional communications. In fact, I probably could have done with more of Fiona and perhaps a bit less of Sophie’s family goings-on.
Sophie is a mess, and towards the middle of the book I was getting frustrated with her, but I appreciated the fact that the people in her life don’t let her get away with just being a mess. After reading Anna Karenina, I complained to my mum that all she really needed was someone to sit her down and tell her to behave like a grown-up (Anna, not my mum. Mum behaves like a grown-up when necessary). Sophie actually has those people in her life. She has a best friend who loves her enough to tell her off when she’s behaving poorly. Good friendships should be robust enough to survive frank speech, and Sophie’s relationship with childhood friend Mags falls into this category. Similarly, she’s got a good mentor at work who is trying to develop her into a competent lawyer, which sometimes involves reminding her to behave like a professional instead of a melodramatic thirteen-year-old in a Judy Blume novel. I really enjoyed her character arc – the whole business of getting herself together a bit, responding positively to constructive criticism, and becoming somewhat less chaotic as a person.
I will say that, after first Anna and then Sophie, I’m quite ready for a break from whiny women who are obsessed with their love lives. The next book I read had better have a main character who is either a) happily married and doesn’t bang on about it or b) happily single and doesn’t bang on about it. (I’m being unkind, probably, but I did once end a friendship because in five years it had basically never passed the Bechdel test and I couldn’t cope with it any more. My tolerance for people moping over boys is pretty low. Even when I have personally moped over boys I’ve been very intolerant with myself about it. What’s the opposite of being a romantic? Anyway, it’s even more annoying on paper than in person). Time for me to pick up some of the classic science fiction that’s been lingering on my TBR for a while, maybe? Despite this lingering irritation, though, I really enjoyed The Divorce Papers. I’m not sure that I would recommend it unless you share my fondness for epistolary fiction, but if you do, this does some really interesting things with it and is a lot of fun.