18 March 2014

The Divorce Papers

This month my online book club, From Left to Write, read the hilarious book The Divorce Papers, by Susan Reiger. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed this book!

As is typical for my 'official' book club post, I'm not going to write a review of the book but rather discuss an experience the book brought to mind for me - sort of like a writing prompt. Here's a little overview of this book, borrowed from Amazon:
Twenty-nine-year-old Sophie Diehl is happy toiling away as a criminal law associate at an old line New England firm where she very much appreciates that most of her clients are behind bars. Everyone at Traynor, Hand knows she abhors face-to-face contact, but one weekend, with all the big partners away, Sophie must handle the intake interview for the daughter of the firm’s most important client. After eighteen years of marriage, Mayflower descendant Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim has just been served divorce papers in a humiliating scene at the popular local restaurant, Golightly’s. She is locked and loaded to fight her eminent and ambitious husband, Dr. Daniel Durkheim, Chief of the Department of Pediatric Oncology, for custody of their ten-year-old daughter Jane—and she also burns to take him down a peg. Sophie warns Mia that she’s never handled a divorce case before, but Mia can’t be put off. As she so disarmingly puts it: It’s her first divorce, too.  
Debut novelist Susan Rieger doesn’t leave a word out of place in this hilarious and expertly crafted debut that shines with the power and pleasure of storytelling. Told through personal correspondence, office memos, emails, articles, and legal papers, this playful reinvention of the epistolary form races along with humor and heartache, exploring the complicated family dynamic that results when marriage fails. For Sophie, the whole affair sparks a hard look at her own relationships—not only with her parents, but with colleagues, friends, lovers, and most importantly, herself. Much like Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Divorce Papers will have you laughing aloud and thanking the literature gods for this incredible, fresh new voice in fiction. 
How interesting is the concept? An entire event, told only in memos, filings, articles, and emails. I will say that the insight this book gave me at the inner workings of a divorce were definitely eye-opening (and made me more than a little sad, that a loving relationship must be reduced to so much official knit-picking. And how mean people can be to one another, despite the involvement of innocent kids.) But the point of this post is to discuss something the book brought to mind, and for me that's what would be left behind if my life story were told in memos and emails.

Have you ever given any thought to that? I took a look at my (ridiculously overflowing) inboxes, both for work and personal stuff. They're filled with impersonal snippets, brief bits of communication about a family event, loads of offers, and updates from my daughter's school. It's not much, and it's in no way meaningful. That got me thinking.....where do I have meaningful communication, and who do I have it with? I'm online ALL the time (most of us are), so the myriad emails I get from a group of friends go largely unread and responded to - the noise from all my other time online means I avoid my inbox after work more often than not. Updates to Facebook or Twitter are short, and can be made quickly (and doctored to make us look better than we may actually be, or worse). Social media is in no way meaningful communication (don't get me wrong - I love it. I really do). But were it to be all that was left behind to tell a story, it doesn't paint a complete picture at all.

I recently spent an afternoon with my almost 99 year old grandmother, reading her letters from my grandfather. She has every letter he wrote her, from the mid 1930s through the mid 1960s, when he traveled for the military. Every.single.word. They're organized in two shoeboxes, in chronological order. Each one is filled with meaning, and leaves no doubt about either the author of the letters or the recipient. THAT is meaningful. THAT is making sure people know how you feel, and respecting a relationship enough to make sure they know. It takes effort to pen a letter to someone a world away, and ask them to remind a friend you're thinking of them, kiss the kids, pay a bill, and still make the reader feel loved.

I definitely think the art of the written letter is lost (maybe not completely, but it's on the way out). That doesn't mean that meaningful communication should be, too. When was the last time you sent a random but heartfelt electronic communication, though? If your life was compiled from what's in your inbox right now, what would it say about you?

This post was inspired by the novel The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. Young lawyer Sophie unwillingly takes her first divorce case with an entertaining and volatile client in this novel told mostly through letters and legal missives. Join From Left to Write on March 18 we discuss The Divorce Papers. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

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