I love books with funky narratives, alternating POVs, and I’m a sucker for a book with an unusual format. All of these things piqued my interest about Susan Rieger’s debut novel The Divorce Papers. Its jacket describes it as “[a] rich, layered novel told entirely through personal correspondence, office memos, emails, articles, handwritten notes, and legal documents.” Sign me up!
This is the story of 29-year-old Sophie, a criminal lawyer who gets roped into working on a divorce case. That really is the basis of the novel; we see the divorce unfold through the various documents mentioned above. I thought this would be a fun and quirky read, and in some places it is, but overall Rieger does not have the skill or voice as a writer to execute an epistolary novel.
While I think the idea of this book is fun and relatively unique, there are some problems. Namely Sophie. Sophie is a totally unlikeable, whinny woman that I would not want to be my friend, let alone my lawyer. She sends completely inappropriate emails and memos of a personal nature (spilling her guts about her parents’ divorce more than a decade before) to her boss — emails that are rather flirtatious, especially when you learn that she has a crush on DG (as she calls him). What’s worse is that her boss doesn’t seem to want to stop her from sending these emails. At one point, he tells her that a memo she wrote is unprofessional, but his criticism is related to not its contents but its structure — she rambles, he says, and that is true for the bulk of Sophie’s correspondence. It rambles and doesn’t seem to have a point — and when she finally gets there, you’re exhausted from waiting for her to wrap it up already.
Which leads me to my next criticism. I could not stand reading the emails between Sophie and her life-long friend Maggie. Although Maggie was the only one who told Sophie to grow up and grow a pair, I just could not read those emails without my eyes drifting. Granted, this is a novel set in 1999, where email was a novelty and not many people had cell phones, and texting definitely wasn’t a form of communication. But oh my gosh. NO ONE WRITES EMAILS LIKE THAT. My biggest problem with the length of the emails — and many other documents in this book, court documents withstanding — is that they were trying too hard to be literary. They weren’t written in everyday nomenclature. If I am going to read an epistolary novel, I expect it to be realistic, not full of prose that is being forced through a “literary” sieve.
This is a book that tries to rely too much on popular culture, with references to books, movies, and theatre that the majority of readers aren’t going to get. I am a smart, well-read, educated woman and I have to say, reading these references and trying to figure out them when I didn’t know was distracting very irritating. Sometimes inserting these references, even if the audience doesn’t get them, can work. I give you Gilmore Girls as an outstanding example of this. However, in the case of Gilmore Girls, you have two women just being themselves, their likeable selves. In The Divorce Papers, all we have is Sophie making repeated references to her French mother, her English father, her bad boyfriends, with all of these book and movie references that aim at making Sophie appear cultured but fail terribly in hitting their mark.
One thing that I found super irritating, and I don’t know why, is that it appears that this novel takes place in the made up state of Narragansett. Narragansett is a real city in Rhode Island, but here it’s its own state. I take it back, I think I know why it bothers me so much. The author went through law school and has taught law at two different colleges. Would it have been so difficult to do research into actual divorce laws of an actual state? I feel like making up a state and its own divorce laws is both a) a lot more work than researching real divorce laws in real states and b) lazy writing because she was too lazy to do (a). Other states are mentioned frequently: New York. New Jersey. Massachusetts. Why not use one of those?
My overall impression? I am channeling my inner Sophie when I say that this is a novel that tries way, way too hard to be avant-garde and fails miserably.
You can read an excerpt of The Divorce Papers here.
Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher’s Blogging for Books in return for a fair and unbiased review. I wasn’t asked to give a positive review, just an honest one!