By Cynthia Baker
It begins with a ten year old’s Happy New Year greeting to her grandpa, including the sentence, “Mommy and Daddy are cranky.” It ends with a brief reminder on a lawyer’s personal legal stationary. In between these handwritten notes, “The Divorce Papers” tells a story about a divorce through legal documents, emails, court filings, news articles, a psychiatric report, statutes, judicial opinions, billable hour reports, invitations, and, of course, offers and counter-offers.
Through the divorce of Dr. Daniel Durkheim and Maria “Mia” Mather Meiklejohn Durkheim, Susan Rieger’s novel introduces a wonderful cast of characters to
uched by the Durkheim divorce. More important, the novel invites readers to explore the threads of love and respect that can transcend a dead marriage. This humorous and touching novel sometimes positively glistens with the wit of smart lawyers, the love between husbands and wives and exes and parents and children, and the fresh ambition of a lawyer who is just trying to do her job (and make partner).
Set in 1999 in the fictional state of Narragansett (state statutes, judicial opinions, and law schools included), the novel’s main character, Sophie Diehl, is an associate at the prestigious mid-sized law firm of Traynor Hand and Wyzanski. Due to the absence of the partners who usually handle divorces, or, as the partners like to say, “matrimonial matters,” 29-year-old associate Sophie handles the intake interview for Mrs. Durkheim, the daughter of one of the law firm’s most important clients. Sophie is not a divorce lawyer.
Unlike her client, who was surprised by her husband’s filing of divorce proceedings after eighteen years of marriage (“I thought we’d live unhappily ever after,” writes Mia), Sophie almost expects her romantic relationships to end in disappointment. While Mia weighs the impact of her divorce on her only daughter, Sophie reflects on the impact of her parents’ divorce on her professional ambitions and personal relationships. The correspondence between, to, and from these two women provides the novel’s framework.
Its texture benefits from the fact that the author is a lawyer, has taught law at the undergraduate and law school level, and, has been through a divorce. Early in her legal career, Rieger taught a legal writing class that required her to create hypotheticals for her law students, including writing statutes, cases, assignments and inventing clients and law firms. After her own divorce, Rieger began her work on “The Divorce Papers,” which took years to write and additional years to complete. This blending of law and life, the lawyer and the divorcee, the real and the fictional, grounds the novel in what lawyers know and live.
While the always-so-clever, New Englandy pretentiousness of the correspondence can be a little unbelievable at times, it certainly entertains. For example, the wit, literary allusions, and personal insights contained in the inter-office legal memos between Sophie and her mentor/partner David Greaves are just beyond the pale of what busy lawyers would be able to do on any consistent basis. However, how else could readers appreciate the personalities, politics, and law firm dynamics of Traynor Hand and Wyzanski?
Similarly, these unrealistic aspects of the correspondence are what bring so many issues of the novel to life: sexism, racism, ageism, and, of course, the topic of all topics, love. The wonderful, wise and often hilarious email correspondence between Sophie and her best friend, while perhaps beyond belief in terms always being so “on,” does a wonderful job inviting readers into the relationships of many of the novel’s characters. And, while a divorce where money is really not at issue is difficult to believe, the Durkheim divorce is exactly that. However, this stretch of the imagination allows readers, like the divorcing parties, to focus on matters of ego and desire (which are really more interesting topics than money anyway, right?).
Finally, readers who are lawyers might especially enjoy watching the lawyers in the novel deal with each other, from law office management to professional development and retaining clients. For example, some of the novel’s correspondence sheds light on the bias and reputations of lawyers based on their respective alma maters and judicial clerkships, stereotypes connected to the sorts of law that lawyers practice, and even generational differences within the practice of law. With these candid views of what lawyers often take for granted, Rieger invites all readers, lawyers included, to laugh at themselves and some of the funnier aspects of the legal profession.
I can count the epistolary novels I’ve read on one hand: Nik Bantok’s “Griffin and Sabine,” Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” and C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters.” “The Divorce Papers” makes five. While it may not rise to the acclaim of its predecessors on my little list, I enjoyed it very much. I think many in our legal community would too.•
Cynthia Baker is a Clinical Professor of Law at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.