Book Review: 'The Divorce Papers'

Alan Cheuse reviews the novel The Divorce Papers, by Susan Rieger.

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The woe that is marriage, the subject of the Wife of Bath's prologue in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," has long been a rich subject for stories. Susan Rieger has just published a novel on the matter, called "The Divorce Papers."

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Rieger's smart and wonderfully entertaining domestic comedy, with all its shifts of tone from the personal to the legal - and a lot in between - takes up this old problem and makes it fresh and lively. The power and canniness of this bittersweet work of epistolary fiction - a first novel - really pulls you along. Composed completely of letters, business reports, emails, court documents, medical reports and handwritten notes, the story of a divorce and the principals involved, and their lawyers, makes for serious yet charming entertainment.

All the stuff of the novel comes from the invented files of Sophie Diehl, Esq., a young New England criminal lawyer who gets stuck handling her first divorce case. It's a complicated matter that involves a fair amount of money, some prime New England property, and the damaged hearts of everyone in the family. The story gets going when successful Dr. Daniel Durkheim and his old-line New England wife, Maria, decide to end their marriage. They have one child, a young girl named Jane. Daniel's earned a lot of money in his still-young career. Maria's got a bit of an inheritance, but Daniel's also got a girlfriend, a dermatologist; so Maria gets herself a lawyer.

It's already sounding a bit soapy, I think. But Rieger uses the emails and court papers to scrub the soap and sentiment out of the situation, presenting instead an intense and illuminating series of documents that describe, from various perspectives, the woes of a crumbling marriage. Plus, we read stories within stories, which add to the complication of the novel. The woe that is in marriage - that is, marriage - remains a great subject. Working it out in what in the acknowledgements the novelist calls epistolary 2.0 only adds to its pleasures.

CORNISH: The book is "The Divorce Papers," by Susan Rieger. Alan Cheuse had our review. His next book, "An Authentic Captain Marvel Ring and Other Stories," is out next month.

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