The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

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The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger is an epistolary novel. The story is told entirely through interoffice memos, attorney’s work papers, court documents, medical reports, letters to friends and emails. The narration progresses neatly through the various forms of communication between the interested parties. Once you get used to it, you can read the story like any other novel.

The novel begins when Mia (Maria) Meiklejohn Durkheim’s husband’s lawyer serves her with divorce papers in Golightly’s, a most exclusive restaurant, while she is having lunch with friends. Daniel later swears it wasn’t his idea but his lawyer’s. Mia is not having it. After all, as she says, “He chose the sleaze ball.” The genteel Mia becomes a tigress.

With this opening salvo, Mia’s father, the wealthy real estate mogul Bruce Meiklejohn, recommends the firm of Traynor Hand Wyznski, his lawyers, to his daughter. He instructs the firm to treat her as if it were he using their services, i. e., go all out. He guarantees their fees.
Managing Partner David Greaves drafts the very junior attorney Sophie Diehl into acting as Mia’s attorney. Sophie protests vehemently to her boss to no avail. She is a criminal lawyer, not a civil one; she has no experience in civil law, the firm has three excellent divorce attorneys, and she doesn’t like talking to clients face to face. Sophie’s boss swears he will guide her through the process and Mia’s interests will not suffer–but Sophie has to take the case because no one else is available.

So, despite all her objections, Sophie does the intake interview, warning Mia that she has never done a divorce before. Mia decides she likes the novice divorce lawyer–after all, Mia states, “It’s my first divorce, too.” Mia probably respects her honesty more than anything else, and Sophie grudgingly begins to like Mia. In many senses, they proceed like two good friends. Finally, Sophia’s boss warns her in a memo that she must retain her professionalism and not become involved like a friend.

Even though Durkheim wants a speedy settlement so he can move on with his new girlfriend, the negotiations are protracted. Mia tries to get things moving because her daughter, Jane, is taking the divorce hard, but to no avail. Sophie reminds Mia constantly that time is on their side and a valuable negotiating tool. She urges Mia to hang in there. The back-and-forth likely resembles a real divorce, but for a novel, the paperwork is repetitive and somewhat boring. Yet it’s interesting to see how the rich live and how figures can get switched around until finally both parties are satisfied.

The novel would be tedious except for the charming Sophie and the hilarious Mia. Sophie is a bright young attorney who loves criminal law. When she gets roped into handling the divorce, her killer instincts come out. Her legal maneuvers are daring and unorthodox, but very effective in keeping the other attorney off balance. During the negotiations, Sophie is forced to take a hard look at her own relationships, especially her relationship with her parents.

Mia is a lovely socialite who minces no words when dealing with her highly successful husband, a respected pediatric oncologist. Her scathing characterization of the law firm Daniel hired is guaranteed to improve your use of the English language! She is out for blood and longs to take her insufferable husband down a few pegs. As the novel reaches its climax, Mia sends a note to Sophie jokingly claiming that she has discovered the seven stages of divorce, similar to the seven stages of grief.

In addition to exploring the “woe that is in marriage” and how it affects everyone involved, Rieger lets Sophie become a victim of the back-stabbing maneuvers common at many firms, both large and small. She explores the nuances of Sophie’s new-found love–divorce law. Rieger celebrates the arts by reminding us of all the good books we read and others we should read. Rieger illustrates Mia’s statement that divorce can be mentally challenging for the different parties even when it is emotionally shattering.

The epistolary form has been around for centuries, and Rieger thoroughly mastered the form for The Divorce Papers, her first novel. As noted, some of the paperwork is repetitive for a novel, yet it is important to the complete picture Rieger paints. My advice is to skip over the dull parts and go on to the meat. The story is juicy, but much of the paperwork is dry as shoe leather and of interest only to a lawyer negotiating a divorce and her client. Anyone recently divorced will probably want to skip this one. For everyone else, especially those contemplating divorce, this comedy is required reading. HLM