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.