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Sister Mary Murderous

Favorite genres are traditional mystery, police procedurals, espionage, Eurocrime, literary fiction and nonfiction history, especially WW2 and Cold War.  I write about crime fiction at Read Me Deadly (www.readmedeadly.com)

A refreshingly different and entertaining coming-of-age story of two strong young women--but definitely not for everyone

The Divorce Papers - Susan Rieger

Sophie Diehl is a graduate of Yale Law School and an associate practicing criminal law with a small but prestigious firm in the fictional town of New Salem in the also fictional state of Narragansett. When Mia Meiklejohn, the daughter of one of the firm's most important clients, is served with divorce papers by her husband, Dr. Daniel Durkheim, at a time when the firm's experts aren't around, managing partner David Greaves corrals Sophie and has her take on Mia's initial interview. Mia decides she likes Sophie's style and asks for her to continue representing her. Since a rich and powerful client's request is taken as an unrefusable demand, Sophie will spend all of 1999 learning that marital law might just be at least as down and dirty as criminal law.

Sophie's "legal file" is the vehicle for this novel. It includes formal documents, such as legal memoranda, court filings, legal cases, settlement offers, and financial records, and also informal papers like personal letters among Mia, her daughter Jane, her father, Daniel, Daniel's (first) ex-wife and Daniel's current mistress, emails between Sophie and her best friend Maggie, and unclassifiable internal memos between Sophie and David Greaves in which she talks about the law, movies and her personal life.

Wikipedia says that the epistolary form (telling a story through a series of documents):

. . . can add greater realism to a story, because it mimics the workings of real life. It is thus able to demonstrate differing points of view without recourse to the device of an omniscient narrator.

The form of this novel does provide a you-are-there feel. I enjoyed never knowing when I turned the page whether I'd next be reading a handwritten nastygram from Mia to Daniel; a formal (but razor sharp) settlement offer letter from Sophie to Daniel's shyster lawyer; a gossipy email from Sophie to Maggie about Sophie's dating life, her sometimes difficult relationships with her parents or her in-office nemesis, Fiona; a newspaper article; the text of a precedent-setting court opinion.

Although the title is The Divorce Papers, and that's the form the novel takes, this is actually the story of Sophie's personal and professional coming of age. Sophie is in her late 20s and making the transition from daughter to independent adult, from legal ingenue to confident practitioner, from dating failure to woman in a relationship. She is an appealing young woman and comes across in the book as something like a smarter and more adroit Bridget Jones.

But it's a secondary character who steals every scene she's in. Mia is a real pistol. Her husband, Daniel, may be one of the country's foremost experts in pediatric oncology, but he and his lawyer walk into a human buzzsaw when they cross her. A woman who downshifted her journalism career to move to New Salem for her husband's practice and to raise their daughter, Jane, Mia finds that the electric shock of being served divorce papers has galvanized her in every aspect of her life--and taken any governor off her tongue that she might have had in the past.

While I thought this was a delightfully different novel, with many engaging characters--as well as some love-to-hate villains--it won't be for everyone. Some people just don't like epistolary novels, period. And, in this case, many of the documents are legal forms and financial documents. Though the author avoids legalisms as much as reasonably feasible, some readers will be unwilling to read these documents, even fictional documents, for pleasure.

Most of the characters are privileged, sophisticated and highly educated, which leads to a style of writing that is more formal and self-consciously intellectual than in a typical novel. While this seemed to me to be appropriate to the characters and their setting, some readers may find it affected and off-putting.

If you're a lawyer, or you know lawyers, then this book might be of particular interest. Susan Rieger must know some law-firm lawyers herself, because her writing about internal firm issues and how battles are waged within a firm is lively and has a realistic feel. At the same time, she does make a number of errors about law-firm practice (which I won't go into here). I didn't think they got in the way of the story, but if you're a stickler you may not agree.

My (non-precedential ;-} ) opinion is that this is an entertaining coming-of-age novel about two strong female characters, and a welcome addition to the category of epistolary novels.


Note: Thanks to the publisher and Amazon's Vine program for an advance reviewing copy of the book.