The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger is pretty much a next-level epistolary book. Sophie Diehl is twenty-nine years old, an Ivy League graduate, and criminal defense lawyer. Sophie is excellent at her job and especially loves that all of her clients are incarcerated, meaning she doesn’t have to get too close or involved. However, when a divorce lawyer at her firm named Fiona can’t make a meeting to do an intake with a new client, Sophie is told to fill in, asking the most basic questions about the client’s situation.

Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim can’t believe she’s getting divorced. Her husband, Dr. Daniel Durkheim, had his lawyer serve her papers while she was lunching at her favorite restaurant. Although Sophie has never done a divorce and specializes in a different field of law, Mia is taken with the young woman and insists Sophie be her lawyer the whole thing through. Sophie can’t believe it; she does not want to do a divorce, and when Fiona, who specializes in divorce, returns expecting a new case and doesn’t have one, Fiona is pissed.

Mia agrees to pay Sophie’s fee plus the fees of two additional, experienced divorce lawyers higher up in the firm. The Durkheim couple is wealthy and have one daughter, though it shouldn’t be a problem agreeing on custody; Dr. Durkheim is almost never home. Dragging her feet, Sophie enters the world of negotiations over Persian rugs, stocks and bonds, and even Mia receiving payment on the doctor’s degree, as it was an investment Mia thought she could count on as she aged.

So, how is this an epistolary novel? The book is basically formatted as the divorce file of client Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim. There are handwritten notes from Mia, her daughter, Dr. Durkheim, and Mia’s father. You see intra-office memos between Sophie and her mentor, David. David often replies with court cases attached to help Sophie familiarize herself with precedent set by other divorce cases in the state, which we read.

I often loved these old cases, especially the situation in which a woman sued her husband to make him put a toilet and washing machine in their home. While the husband worked a full-time job, the wife maintained the home, which was about as technologically equipped as the little house in the big woods. When he retired, she still had to maintain that home, washing clothes by hand and using an outhouse. In the end, the husband won the case because the courts felt it was not their place to dictate how a family spends money; that would lead to some slippery precedence. So long as the wife is fed, sheltered, and safe, that’s all the court can rule in on.

Surprisingly, The Divorce Papers has a terrible rating on Goodreads, as members express their disgust with reading so many memos and emails. However, if you keep scrolling down the Goodreads page, you see people who are interested in law and how the law works frequently stayed up too late reading this thick book (which is a speedy read despite its size given the nature of the epistolary format). For instance, below you can see on the left the dictation of the intake interview between Sophie and Mia. On the right is a worksheet Sophie’s mentor asked her to fill out to better organize some information about the spouses.

I can see where some of the more number-driven memos, which are typically financial offers and then counteroffers sent between the spouses’ lawyers, might make some people’s eyes bleary, but you can also skim such pages to get the gist of what they mean. However, author Susan Rieger maintains credibility with her legal knowledge (she haw a Columbia law degree), balancing “business” documents with emotional documents. For instance, in the letter below Sophie sends a memo to her mentor telling him she received a copy of a letter from Mia’s father, written to his granddaughter. Then, we can read the copy of the letter:

Sticking to the form of a divorce file makes Reiger’s work more believable and interesting. Then again, we also get Sophie’s emails to her best friend, in which Sophie admits she hates meeting clients in person, hates divorce and was messed up by her own parents’ split, and the romantic relationship she’s trying to kindle. Thus, The Divorce Papers avoids being too stiff or legalese. Granted, I’m not sure why Sophie’s personal emails would appear in a divorce file, so you had to use your imagination and pretend like they’re separate.

This is another book I read with my mom, Biscuit. We both felt that Sophie trying to date wasn’t necessary for The Divorce Papers. Neither of us cared if she made it work with this flighty actor who up and disappears at one point and then has a surprise later. Her second relationship in the book, which looks healthier, still wasn’t interesting to us because it goes beyond the scope of the case. Instead, more focus on drama inside the law firm would have appealed to us. Fiona, the lawyer who felt snubbed, is formally reprimanded and later appeals, claiming sexist bias. Day-to-day, Fiona’s passive aggressive nature nearly scares Sophie, and the office politics delighted me as a reader.

Overall, I enjoyed The Divorce Papers and felt it a worthwhile read. More focus on the firm and less on romance would have suited me better, but I still came away with a clear sense of how a case works, what constitutes professionalism, where the courts can and cannot interject themselves, and the effects on a child whose support system in nontraditional.

22 comments

  1. I’m not sure you’ve persuaded me to try epistolary novels, and especially not this one, it’s just too discontinuous. Also sounds like the publisher told the author, You’ve got to flesh out Susan a bit, make her a bit more interesting. And she couldn’t do it within the format (divorce file) she started out with.

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    • The office drama around lawyers, influenced by their field of specialty (the tough criminal lawyers vs. the more professional divorce lawyers, for example), made for some funny politics. I think my favorite epistolary novel ever is Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball, in which the main character writes a suicide goodbye letter to pretty much everyone he’s ever met.

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  2. This sounds really creative and I don’t mind epistolary novels at all. But I’m still not sure legal drama is something that excites me. I like that the author actually has a law degree though and brings some accuracy to the story.

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  3. Interesting! I agree that the dating sounds a little out of place with the rest of the book; I wonder if maybe the author was just trying to appeal to a wider audience by adding a romance element without really doing the work to make it an integral part of the story? I do like the sound of the structure a lot, though I don’t think I’m interested enough in legal paperwork and divorce specifically for this content to hold my attention long enough, but it’s pleasing to look at on the page and sounds like a great fit for this story. Nice review!

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    • I have a suspicion that the publisher was like, “Make this book more woman-y,” so we got romance and that HUGE PINK COVER. I don’t know why it’s pink; it does’t fit with the intelligence and very adult tone (especially in sections about professionalism and discrimination in the work place) of the novel.

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  4. This does sound very interesting although I can’t read about such things still (such a pain, that I lost my tolerance for reading about affairs and marriages breaking up once I got married to the person I’d been with for 13 years already!). A good experimental form and the publisher should have not pushed the romance side-plot!

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    • Because I’ve never been divorced, and neither have my parents, I don’t think much about how long the sting of cheating and divorce can last in a person’s heart. I’m sorry that happened to you, Liz. Thank you for sharing.

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      • Oh no, it’s not happened to me at all, I just got married and since then I’ve found it really tough to read books with those topics! It’s infuriating as I was fine all those long years before the wedding! I have been cheated on (not by this guy) but that didn’t stop me reading about it!

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  5. OHHHHH I love the idea of this one. I’m not sure why, but it realy appeals to me. I like Epistolary novels too, I love when things move quickly, so I don’t mind if they are longer as long as they clip along, ya know?

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  6. This sounds great – even though the subject material isn’t necessarily up my street, I love epistolary fiction so much that I think it would make up for having to deal with Sophie’s dating life. And the elements of legalese actually appeal to me as much as they put those other readers off!

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    • Sophie’s dating life is a very small part of the book, but I had to wonder why it was there at all. I can see you enjoying this one, Lou. There’s a practicality behind it that makes me think of you.

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  7. Maybe because I love the way that a unique kind of intimacy can be created with the epistolary form, I just felt like this was the perfect vehicle for this story. And I didn’t care about how long the documents were because there was always a lot of personal information about the relevant parties that made it interesting for me. It’s nice that you have a bookclub with your mom.

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    • I get the feeling this book suffered from poor marketing. Whether it was the pink cover and emphasis on Sophie being a twenty-something lawyer or what, I think readers expected something more light-hearted and romance-driven. Goodreads reviews were not kind to it, though folks who are actually divorce lawyers seemed to get a great laugh out of things.

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