BOOK REVIEW: The Divorce Girl
By Herald de Paris Contributor’s Bureau on August 13, 2012
By Hubert O’Hearn, Literary Editor
THUNDER BAY (Herald de Paris) — I hadn’t realized that this wonderful, humorously acidic, perceptive novel was intended for a Young Adult* audience until just now checking the back cover for the suggested retail price. Well, all I can say to that is speaking as someone who is on the furthest reaches of the universe as Young and only marginally an Adult, I find The Divorce Girl to be one of the three finest novels I have read this year, period. Publisher’s suggestions be damned, this is a book I will happily share with my octogenarian mother, my 22 year old step-daughter, or friends of chameleon hair colour. It’s that damn good.
How I first came across Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s work is actually germane to this review as opposed to trivial gossip. Mirriam-Goldberg is the occasional lyricist for the Blues artist Kelly Hunt, of whom I am a tremendous fan. Hunt’s latest CD release Gravity Loves You is a soulfully wise and melodically soothing album by the way, but that’s a subject for another section and another day. In any event, my curiousity was peaked and I began reading Mirriam-Goldberg’s poetry, which is both precise and moving following a line established by Walt Whitman of loving the earth, the soil, the sun and all that inhabit our environment. She is, by the way, the Poet Laureate of Kansas, a title so delicious that I wish it was the title of a novel.
In any event, I wrote an unabashed fan letter and upon learning that Mirriam-Goldberg had written The Divorce Girl (the latest of her fourteen books of poetry, criticism, and memoirs), I asked for a review copy. Now this is where that ‘germane’ bit comes in to the conversation. My worry was that like many a poet who has taken a run at narrative fiction has found, the urge to create lovely little phrases would muck up the story. I’d name names here, but I don’t really want to insult Leonard Cohen. What? Oops.
The Divorce Girl is anything but clogged. Years of writing poetry and teaching Creative Writing at Vermont’s Goddard College have given Mirriam-Goldberg that truest thing a fiction writer must have: an ear for the natural rhythms of story-telling. Images, while lovely as sunflowers, are not slugged at the reader like coal shovels. Dialogue, while tart and plaintive, is not the stuff of melodrama. I believed every word and trust me, I believe next to nothing.
The guts of the book and the title character is the story of Deborah Shapiro, age 15 going on 16, who becomes the pawn in the divorce of her mother and her father Hank. Deborah chooses to stay with her father after the divorce and refuses any contact with her mother, although not quite sure why. She just buys into the story that Hank is correct, that her mother is a lousy mother.
Deborah buries herself in photography, constantly taking pictures and sharing them in a class taught in a back room of a blue jeans and accessories store owned by Liz, one of several perfectly wrought supporting characters. Liz, the local Rabbi, a ‘bad girl’ Eshe, and the neighboring merchants at a flea market where Hank makes extra money beyond his taxi business are all clear and three-dimensional as opposed to the sort of allegorical truth-tellers who spout an aphorism or two then disappear.
A passage. The Rabbi asks Deborah why, despite the everyday abuse of her father, she absolutely refuses to consider moving in with her mother and two younger siblings:
“I don’t know exactly.” Out of nowhere, shame flushed through me. “There’s something about my mom, the way she would get depressed out of the blue and just pull away from us all. I’m so tired of being the one that does that to her.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked, staring at me in disbelief. “You don’t make her sad, Deborah. You’re her daughter. If anything, you give her new life, some hope for the future. You know the story of the exodus, right?”
“Yeah, Moses, Pharaoh, the Red Sea.”
“Do you know what I get from that story? That hardening our heart to anyone – like Pharaoh did to Moses – is the path of suffering. This life is about breaking your heart open so it can’t become hard.”
Of course, the path to that end can be so arduous as to make forty years in the desert seem like a stroll to the corner store for chips and a soda. Yet The Divorce Girl itself is not heavy lifting. It is wickedly, subversively funny. In fact, in its open-minded view of Jewish culture and knowledge of how children ultimately discover the stealth of their parents, I dare say that this is the novel Mordecai Richler would have written had he born a girl. Richler had the Boy Wonder in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; Mirriam-Goldberg has Boy in The Divorce Girl. In case you don’t know, this is as high a praise as I can offer a novelist.
A last bouquet of praise: I admire Mirriam-Goldberg’s subtlety in grounding this novel during the mid-seventies without drowning the reader in cultural references. There are just enough to remind; not so many as to overwhelm or shove away a younger audience.
This is likely the choicest read you’ll open this year. I loved it.
Be seeing you.
*Since the writing of this review, the Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg has told me that The Divorce Girl was indeed intended for an Adult audience. Or if that’s confusing to you, let’s say Grown-Up instead.