Monday, April 1, 2024

The Divorcées, by Rowan Beaird: How to Forge Your Own Path

If you're a woman in the 1950s and you want to get divorced, you go to Nevada, and hang out for six weeks at a "divorce ranch" -- a niche industry taking advantage of Nevada's laissez faire laws and catering to courageous  (and usually wealthy) women who want out of their marriages. In Nevada, no one really cares about the reason for your divorce. Nevada will happily take your money, sever your connection, and send you on your way.

This little-known corner of history is the backdrop behind The Divorcées, the terrific, juicy, gin-soaked debut novel by Rowan Beaird. 

Lois is a mid-20s woman living in Lake Forest, Illinois, and married to a fellow named Lawrence who she decidedly doesn't love. She only married him because that's what women do. They get married. After four years of marriage, Lois has decided, mostly because she doesn't want to have children (an even more courageous decision in mid-century America) and Lawrence does, along with a several other indignities to which he subjects her, she wants out of her marriage. 

So even though her father is furious, she goes to the Golden Yarrow, a divorce ranch in Reno, Nevada. After six weeks, she can establish Nevada residency, and get a divorce with very few questions asked. When urbane but mysterious socialite Greer arrives at the ranch, her face bruised and her past shrouded, all the girls are immediately drawn to her. But she chooses Lois, for reasons Lois can't begin to comprehend, as her confidante. 

Who is Greer? What's her story and what does she want? And will she help Lois forge her own path, or will she lead Lois to her demise?

How society looked down its nose at divorced women is a major theme of this novel, as is the idea that women weren't truly free to choose their own best lives. The Nevada divorce ranches make for super fertile ground for exploring this idea through the characters of Lois, Greer, and several other women, each with her own reason for being there. We root for these women, even the ones who seem flighty and superficial, but we root the most for Lois. 

The novel slow burns through the first half, as Lois gets situated and attuned to the day-to-day of her new home. But the lushness of Beaird's writing carries us through. You truly have a sense of place at this desert ranch. When the story really gets going, it's tough to put down. In fact, I read the second half of this novel in one day. I couldn't wait to see whether Lois makes it or not.

This is a really accomplished debut, and I can't wait to see what Beaird does next! 

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