Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wednesday, January 22, 2014: Maximum Shelf: The Divorce Papers

Crown: The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

Crown: The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

Crown: The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

The Divorce Papers

by Susan Rieger

Chances are you've never read a novel quite like The Divorce Papers. Former university professor and law teacher Susan Rieger gives the epistolary form a fun, unique twist, interspersing personal letters and e-mails with interoffice memos, briefs, transcripts, worksheets and other legal documents to deliver a clever, engaging story along with a crash course in divorce law.

Murder, not divorce, is attorney Sophie Diehl's specialty. Warring spouses aren't her bailiwick, plus she abhors client interaction and couldn't be happier most of hers are behind bars with limited means of contact. So when she winds up helming a high-profile divorce case, she is as surprised as anyone.

Sophie's detour into civil law begins after she pinch-hits for her firm's partners by doing an intake interview with Mia Durkheim, the divorcing daughter of their most important client. Her boss assures her that will be the end of her involvement in the case, but Mia shrewdly sizes up Sophie and asks that she be the one to represent her. In her mind, a criminal lawyer is exactly who she needs to combat the hardball attorney her philandering husband hired.

When Sophie protests that she's ill-equipped legally--and temperamentally--to take on the case, Mia tartly tells her, "This is my first divorce, too." The gamble pays off. Using tactics honed defending hardened criminals, Sophie is a formidable foe, going toe to toe with opposing counsel and even teaching the seasoned divorce lawyers in her firm a thing or two.

If Mia were to commit murder, her spouse of 18 years would top the list of targets. Despite a marriage that went from ardent to average, she believed that she and Daniel would stay together for the sake of their daughter and "live unhappily ever after." Instead Mia is surprised and humiliated when she's served with divorce papers while lunching at her favorite restaurant, Golightly's. After recovering from the shock, she promptly orders a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé.

Although Sophie reluctantly takes on Mia's case, her unwanted client turns out to be the smartest, funniest, most interesting one she's worked with. Together they dish Daniel--a first-rate doctor and third-rate human being--the comeuppance he deserves. Anchoring the story is the two women's entertaining correspondence, which is peppered with literary references, salty language and musings on topics such as the seven stages of divorce. "I somehow feel uninhibited writing to you. I figure you have to have heard worse," Mia confesses to her lawyer and pen pal.

Much livelier and faster paced than the title implies, The Divorce Papers unfolds with sassy Sophie at its center. On the brink of turning 30, she starts taking stock of her life, personally and professionally, comparing herself to "one of those exasperating Austen heroines, Marianne or Emma, ardent and self-centered. But they turn out all right, so maybe...."

Readers get to know Sophie in and out of the workplace as she deals with office politics, including a spiteful colleague who thinks the young lawyer stole her case, romantic drama that has shades of Portnoy's Complaint and thorny family affairs. Working with Mia unearths old wounds for Sophie and finally compels her to come to terms with her parents' devastating, acrimonious divorce 13 years earlier.

Like Sophie and her siblings once were, Mia's daughter, Jane, is caught in the chaos of her parents' marital meltdown and finds solace reading books (she proudly shares a birth date with Shakespeare). The most poignant part of the story is a psychologist's evaluation of the sad, spunky 10-year-old, who takes charge of an uncertain future with the self-assurance of an adult.

By juxtaposing legal documents with personal correspondence, readers are given an eye-opening look at the inner workings of the divorce process as well as the emotional impact on those involved when a marriage fails. Rieger brilliantly blends the serious and the comic, offsetting the weighty topic of divorce with (sometimes dark) humor--like when Mia declares that for her, post-divorce bliss will be a brand-new, king-size bed and the news that a certain part of her husband's anatomy has fallen off.

A bonus for bibliophiles and movie buffs is the abundant book and film references throughout the novel, from Dickens and David Foster Wallace to Star Trek and All About Eve. One character refers to another's personality as part Hamlet and part King Lear, while another likens his mother to Grace Kelly's parent in To Catch a Thief, down-to-earth and a bourbon drinker. When Sophie's best friend offers to set her up with a blind date, she asks, "Is he more Rochester or Heathcliff?"

When Sophie is first assigned to Mia's case, her boss warns her, "In divorce, there are very few satisfied customers." Not so with this immensely enjoyable debut novel. The verdict: if you like your fiction smart and witty, The Divorce Papers is a winner. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Crown, $25, hardcover, 9780804137447, March 2014

Crown: The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

Susan Rieger: The Pleasures of Invention

photo: Nina Subin

Susan Rieger is a graduate of Columbia Law School. She has worked as a residential college dean at Yale and an associate provost at Columbia. She has taught law to undergraduates at both schools and written frequently about the law for newspapers and magazines. She lives in New York City with her husband. The Divorce Papers is her first novel.

In the acknowledgments section, you mention that you came to fiction late in life. What led you to write a novel?

My own divorce--with its accompanying bag lady fears--was the triggering event, but the idea of writing a legal epistolary novel goes back to one of my first jobs as a freshly minted lawyer: teaching a law school course on legal writing. For my students' Moot Court arguments, I had to make up law cases with supporting statements of facts, statutes and legal decisions. I plunged into the project with unexpected enthusiasm, relishing the pleasures of invention. I told myself I should do more of this. In the new millennium, I finally followed through. I had a "now or never" moment.

In The Divorce Papers you use a format you refer to as Epistolary 2.0, combining personal correspondence with legal documents. What drew you to the epistolary form? Why did you also decide to include briefs, worksheets and other actual forms that lawyers use in divorce cases?

When I thought about writing a novel, it was always an epistolary novel. Making up Moot Court assignments taught me how much fun it might be, but I also liked the indirection of the epistolary form as a vehicle for both story telling and story revealing. I was taking cues from Emily Dickinson: "Tell all the truth but tell it slant--/ Success in circuit lies." I wanted the book to give readers a sense of what a divorce felt like, both to those going through it and to those whose lives were entwined with the lives of the warring couple. Divorce is never a story of just two people and their children. Its effects reverberate throughout their whole world. This is a book as much about that world as about the divorcing couple. I would need all kinds of papers, including legal ones, to convey those felt truths.

But there was another influence, an early experience with documents and forms as a way of telling a story. Growing up in Allentown, PA, I couldn't wait until I was old enough to go live in New York City. In the meantime, I found consolation in one of my parents' coffee-table books, Vanity Fair: A Cavalcade of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a window on the world I wanted to live in, filled with articles by a who's who of post-WWI writers, flashing with brilliance, both diamond and paste: Gertrude Stein on her late success; Somerset Maugham on middle age; Harry Houdini on jailbreaking; Dorothy Parker on "Men: A Hate Song"; H.L. Mencken on the 10 dullest writers (including, shamefully, George Eliot). Among my favorite entries were screenwriter Geoffrey Kerr's hilarious and oddly moving short stories told exclusively in personal checks or telegrams. They were so clever, so funny, so obliquely revealing. One of the check sagas, a series of 42 checks between 1903 and 1931, went from cradle (Goosie Gander Baby Shoppe, $148.50) to grave (Hollywood Mortuary, $1280), with payoffs in between to, among others, a military school, a girl named Daisy, a bookie, a lingerie shop and the Reno Municipal Court. I had those stories tucked away in my brain when I sat down to write. 

The book is a literary lover and film buff's delight with references to books and movies interspersed throughout the story. Did you know from the outset that you would weave in these references, or is it something that developed as you wrote the novel?

I didn't decide to put in the references; they seemed second nature to the characters. Mia Durkheim, the divorcing wife, is getting her Ph.D. Sophie Diehl, her lawyer, grew up in an intellectually rigorous household; both her parents have Ph.D.s. I've spent all my adult life teaching and working at colleges and universities, surrounded by smart, well-educated people. At one point, Jane Durkheim, the child of the divorcing couple, sums it up for her and also for me: "There's a lot of quoting that goes on in our house. Books are very important to all of us."

There are numerous references to mysteries in particular. The character Elisabeth Diehl is a famous mystery writer, while Sophie says to her friend Maggie, "I thought everyone smart read mysteries." Who are you some of your favorite mystery authors?

My favorite mysteries of all time are John le Carré's Smiley books, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People. Most people think of them as thrillers, but they are international mysteries, spy mysteries. An additional pleasure: the original TV dramas of these books with Alec Guinness may be the best television ever. I watch them once a year. Other favorites are the Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall novels and for a series, Simenon is always reliable. I like a Cold War atmosphere, foreign or domestic: bad weather, bad behavior and distrust. I also like Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy Night, academics behaving criminally.

How did you go about striking a balance between a serious topic like divorce and its complicating factors--such as having a child involved--and incorporating humor into the story?

Nora Ephron showed in Heartburn that humor as well as heartbreak may be mined from the pit of divorce. I'm sure Mia Durkheim has spent many days in bed, scared and feeling sorry for herself, but she has a daughter to look after, a job to go to, a future to think about. She also has pride and would hate for anyone else to pity her. Humor is one of her ways of dealing with adversity. Sophie Diehl is the same way. For both of them, unhappiness is not only dispiriting, it's tiresome. The Durkheim family motto is "Know your luck." The Diehls' is "Pull up your socks." If you "know your luck" and "pull up your socks," sooner or later, your sense of humor kicks in.

Sophie Diehl and Mia Durkheim are both witty women that readers could probably imagine having a fun-filled lunch or a drink with at the restaurant Golightly's. Were there any real-life models for the two characters?

Sophie and Mia have the gift of saying the right thing at the right time. Not me. I'm one of those people who lie in bed at night, gnashing my teeth, working on the perfect comeback. I often get it, anywhere from two to 48 hours later. I've given my characters better timing. Neither is based on a real-life person, but I've had the great good luck of knowing clever and witty people all my life. My mother was very witty, as is my daughter, and both my husband and my ex-husband are witty. After a while, it rubs off.

Which is more difficult, fiction or law?

I find fiction harder than law. When I was in law school, I discovered that I thought like a lawyer. I liked the logic of law, and the taxonomy of legal reasoning (which is bit like the Passover hymn "Dayenu." "Your honor, the defendant didn't do it; if he did do it, he acted in self-defense; if he wasn't justified to act in self-defense, he is mentally ill...."). It was a wholly satisfying experience, so different from my undergraduate experience. (In college, I was a rather indifferent English major. I rarely had to read a bad or boring book for class, but I was no good at literary criticism.)

Law requires education, experience and, most importantly, judgment. Fiction requires invention, discernment and, most importantly, discipline. To sit down to write a novel, with no set task in front of you, is very different from lawyering and, for me, far more difficult. In fiction, but not in law, I have a threshold problem: getting my bottom in the chair. Once I'm in my chair at my desk, facing my computer, I can work for hours, but I can spend hours avoiding my chair, reading the Times as if I were being paid to do it, listening to NPR, prowling on eBay, even doing laundry. But there's a big BUT: writing fiction is more satisfying. You're making something. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

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