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The Divorce Papers: A Novel Hardcover – March 18, 2014

3.6 out of 5 stars 354 customer reviews

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Q&A with Susan Rieger

You’ve taught law at Columbia and Yale. You’ve written about law for newspapers and magazines. And now you’ve written what one critic called a “brutally comic” and “extremely clever” novel about a lawyer. What about law so fascinated you that you’ve dedicated your life to it and what do you hope to achieve with a novel that you didn’t with your previous professional work?

At an impressionable age, I saw A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s wonderful movie about Thomas More, Henry VIII’s doomed chancellor. At one point More gets into a testy argument with his son-in-law, Will Roper, who says he’d “cut down every law in England” to get the Devil. More answers him: “And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”

After that speech, I was a goner for the law BUT, I was very young, and I didn’t know any women lawyers. That all changed, of course, and 10 years later, I went to law school.

It took me much longer to screw up the courage to try to write a novel, to shake myself loose from the fact-based world of law and make things up. In 1999, I had a kind of now-or-never moment. I wanted more play in my life, more imagination and invention. It took another 12 years, and I didn’t know until 2010 that I’d actually finish.

You mentioned that you’ve been divorced once. How did your own experience of divorce influence the writing of this novel?

Getting divorced made me see the drama in the experience, not only for the couple and any children they might have, but for their whole world, their parents, friends, colleagues. For a first novel, this seemed a good place to start—with what I knew. Then I made things up. That was the most fun—and the most work.

The women in The Divorce Papers are powerhouses in their own way: brilliant, witty, dynamic. Did you have any influences in mind while writing these characters?

My mother was smart and funny. The only piece of marital advice she ever gave me was this: Marry the man who makes you laugh, they all make you cry. That’s true, as far as it goes, but I might have benefited from some additional instruction. Still, I passed it along to my daughter, who is also smart and funnyThen there are my good friends, who are smart and funny. I had all those voices in my head.

There are a slew of literary and film references throughout your novel, sure to delight voracious readers. Were any references particularly important or essential to you?

I have three favorite quotes in the book. The first is from A Man for All Seasons. Mia is telling Sophie about “the other woman”: “Do you remember that scene in A Man for All Seasons, when More confronts Richard Rich for betraying him in exchange for being made Chancellor of Wales? More says to him, ‘I can understand a man giving up his soul for the world, Richard, but for Wales?’ That’s how I feel. I can understand Daniel leaving me, but for Stephanie Roth?”

My second favorite is the poem “Telemachus’ Detachment” by Louise Glück, from her book Meadowlands. It’s for grown children who are having trouble freeing themselves from the thrall of difficult or unhappy parents. Short and powerful, moving and funny.

My third favorite is a longish quote from Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing. It’s a quote about the possibility—and only the possibility—of another person. I’ve never believed in soul mates. I’ve always thought there were at least a hundred people out there for each of us. The Stoppard quote is about one of those hundred, unpursued but acknowledged.

Main character Sophie loves criminal law and is only very reluctantly pulled into this divorce case. What are your preferred (and least favorite) areas of law, and why?

I like law when it intersects with daily life, with family life and working life. So much of our lives is shaped by law, from putting a dad’s name on a baby’s birth certificate to forbidding gramps from burying granny in the back garden. Outside the domestic realm, my favorite areas of law are civil rights and criminal rights—free speech on the one hand, the right to remain silent on the other. In law school, the course I disliked the most was on the Uniform Commercial Code. The only thing I remember was the professor’s economical, cynical, and, I believe, accurate statement on Chapter IV, the section on banks: “The bank never loses. That’s all you need to know.”

Do you envision writing more fiction and, if so, what’s your next project?

I do want to write more fiction; I’m working on a second novel now. I’m not quite ready to talk about it. I worry that I’ll talk about it and not do it. I don’t want to jinx it. It’s hard work writing a novel. And I’m not taking 12 years this time around.

From Booklist

Sophie Diehl is a young law associate working for a well-established New England firm. She specializes in criminal law, working with people behind bars, at least partly to avoid the face-to-face contact family law requires. But with the other associates out of town, Sophie is called to do an intake interview for a divorce case. She agrees, with the stipulation that her involvement ends when the interview is over. Instead, the high-profile client takes a shine to Sophie, insisting Sophie handle her divorce. With heavy support from her boss, Sophie agrees to tackle this new challenge, becoming a better, more confident lawyer in the process. Rieger presents her story in epistolary fashion, through personal correspondence, office memos, e-mails, articles, and legal papers, giving the novel an almost voyeuristic feel. Where Rieger excels is with her characters. Sophie and her crowd are witty, insightful, and interesting people. Although the legal documentation gets heavy at times, Rieger’s method of delivery makes her first novel a refreshing and absorbing read. --Carol Gladstein

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; First Edition edition (March 18, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804137447
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804137447
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (354 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #617,195 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I am 29 -- the same age as Sophie Diehl -- and a matrimonial attorney, and I spent much of my time reading wondering whether those facts meant that this book was meant for me, or not meant for me.

Much of the reading felt like homework -- reviewing statutes, case law and court papers. I can't decide whether seeing these documents as a non-lawyer would be more interesting, or dry and confusing. I'll leave that conclusion to others.

What really bugged me was the little things. Sophie is perfect, which always gets on my nerves. She's brilliant (obviously she went to Yale law school, because in movies and books no competent attorney goes anywhere else) and in high-demand in every area of her life, but still tries to play the hapless I'm-just-trying-to-get-my-shit-together role. If you're a 29-year-old associate and clients and partners alike are fawning over you, you're doing OK. One of the partners in the firm signed his INTEROFFICE MEMOS to her with "love," which is a lawsuit in and of itself. Sophie flirts constantly with her overseeing partner, also in interoffice memos, while they alternately congratulate and chide each other for having read or not read certain classical works. I heard a lot about how French people, English people and Americans act, which I always find obnoxious. The French are not inherently cool, the English are not inherently cold and Americans are not inherently loud and impatient. Strike, strike.

I definitely got tired of hearing about what miserable creatures divorce lawyers are (this from a private criminal defense attorney. Okay.).

Maybe some will find this to be a cute wink/nod, but the single thing that annoyed me the most was that Ms. Rieger name-dropped her own husband towards the end of the book.
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Format: Kindle Edition
I was curious to see how Reiger would incorporate the story into something that would be readable and not too dry with legal citations and explanations. I was expecting a romantic comedy, with SOME factual detail presented when needed. Somewhere in all of the 480 pages of this novel, I lost the witty and sparkling, and found a story that was overburdened with large swaths of text that was explanatory or legal, and thus wholly missable but for the sentence that contained the “you can do this but not that” piece. Sophie as a character was completely unsteady, not only would I not want her for a divorce lawyer, but I wouldn’t necessarily want her in any other case.

Memos from Sophie were often completely unprofessional and wavered from topic to topic without any sense of order. While there was the germ of a good story: young lawyer perhaps gets in over her head in a messy divorce and suffers the usual crises of confidence that such an opportunity would bring to a head: the story was lost in too much tell, not enough show, and little heart or humor to make the story flow.

Readers who do not mind meandering, and are obsessed with the minute details of divorce law as it applies in this fictional case may find this to their taste, for me it was too much tortured detail.

I received an eBook copy from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I think it would be difficult enough to write a novel (I’ve never been able to do it!) but I’d guess it is an even bigger challenge to write a coherent, interesting, character-driven epistolary novel using notes, letters, emails, forms, bills, documents, and depositions; an epistolary novel in the modern fashion (a la, "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" by Maria Semple). Susan Rieger, in her new novel, "The Divorce Papers", manages it.

Sophie, a young attorney, gets roped into doing her first divorce case – against her wishes (she’s a criminal lawyer) and the ensuing “file” is what makes up this unique novel. It’s interesting, witty and sad (divorce is always sad) and it makes for pretty compelling reading. But I don’t think it’s going to be everyone’s cup of tea; readers who prefer a straight narrative may grow tired of the many documents and legal-speak paperwork.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I am probably one of the few individuals who truly loves epistolary novels. I enjoy the voyeuristic aspect of this genre. It's akin to steaming open someone's personal mail or sneaking a peak at their diary where they divulge their innermost thoughts and feelings allowing the reader to observe fully fleshed out characters foibles, warts and all . They also allow the story to develop from various unguarded points of view. DRACULA and THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY are two of my all time favorites. (How is that for two books from the opposite ends of the spectrum?) Another plus for the epistolary style is that the story also moves along pretty quickly since it is unusual for most of the "chapters" to be a page or two in length.

Author Susan Rieger's foray into the epistolary, THE DIVORCE PAPERS, is a novel about the end of a seventeen year marriage told via letters, e-mails, inter-company memos and legal filings. Sophie Diehl is a young liberal lawyer who normally handles criminal cases for the law firm of Traynor, Hand and Wyzanski but suddenly finds herself representing the socially connected Marie Durkheim in a contentious divorce action. She is less than pleased with her assignment since it is out of the realm of her expertise and she feels ill equipped, both legally and emotionally, to handle the case.

Via her correspondence with others and their responses, we follow Sophie through her days as she oversees and handles her clients, copes with various associates within her law firm, leans heavily on a special friend named Maggie for advice and support, matches wits with a less than ethical opposing lawyer and dips a hesitant toe into the turbulent waters of love.
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