The Divorce Papers
California Lawyer

The Divorce Papers

August 2014

The Divorce Papers
by Susan Rieger
Crown Publishers, 480 pages, $25, hardcover

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If you crossed The Nanny Diaries with the Rutter Group's California Practice Guide: Family Law you would end up with something closely comparable to The Divorce Papers, the debut novel by Susan Rieger, a Columbia Law School graduate and writer.

The Divorce Papers tells the story of a young criminal defense attorney - Sophie Diehl - who is assigned by her firm to a somewhat complex divorce action despite her utter lack of experience with (or interest in) family law matters. The book follows Sophie's on-the-job training as she figures out the stylistic differences between criminal and family law, teaches herself the substantive rules necessary to address issues of property division, support, and custody, and navigates the emotional complexity of a dissolution involving a young and vulnerable child.

The Divorce Papers is not told in a traditional narrative form; instead, it is an epistolary novel that intersperses legal memoranda and documents with personal letters and emails to weave a nuanced portrait of both the family law case in which Sophie finds herself entangled and her own personal life. In fact, throughout the book the personal and professional frequently overlap. For example, in an exchange of interoffice memoranda between Sophie and her supervisor, he writes about the importance of the divorcing couple's daughter seeing a therapist, noting: "Jane should see someone. I'm glad her parents see that. ... Children often blame themselves for their parents' divorce; they think it's their fault." Sophie responds on a much more personal note: "I've never thought I had anything to do with my parents' divorce, nor did my siblings. They spared us that. We felt like its casualties. We had cast our lot with them, and they betrayed us. My parents were the stars of our lives, and we, the children, were the supporting players. We had speaking parts but no big scenes. ... The divorce broke my heart."

Even though the story takes place in the imaginary New England state of Narragansett, many of the legal rules and principles Sophie learns along the way will be familiar to anyone practicing family law. The book includes enough legal memoranda, copies of "cases" and "statutes," and notes from client meetings and attorney case conferences to be educational. (In fact, that aspect of the book reminded me of the performance tests that make up a portion of the Bar Exam.) However, intermingled with the legal data and strategy discussions are many personal musings by Sophie about her own life and relationships with her friends, parents, and possible boyfriend, which add levity and color. Thus, what could be a rather dry and technical dissertation on divorce law becomes quite an enjoyable read - which is where The Nanny Diaries comparison comes in.

Full of both legal insight and colorful characters, The Divorce Papers is a perfect summer read for people who genuinely enjoy the law but also are looking for light entertainment.

Deborah H. Wald is the founder of The Wald Law Group, a family law practice in San Francisco.

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