Divorce fiction is hot. There are categories for women's divorce fiction and teen divorce fiction and kid divorce fiction and even men's divorce fiction. Parents buy kid divorce fiction to help kids cope as their lives get turned inside-out. I'm not sure who buys teen divorce fiction as the teens I work with are generally furious with their divorcing parents for messing up their lives and don't want to 'go there.' Women's divorce fiction tends to swing between revenge fantasy novels and "I'm better off without him..." happy-ending novels. And as for men's divorce fiction --- often about sensitive guys struggling to rebuild their shattered lives and be better dads than their own fathers ever were -- I've never worked with a man who reported (as women often do) that "This novel was so cathartic and helpful." My suspicion is that women are reading the men's divorce fiction while thinking, "Well I certainly would not have divorced such this guy."
So where to put The Divorce Girl by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg? It's certainly about divorce, and told in the first person of an adolescent girl, but it does not conveniently fit any of the above categories. This novel is painful to read, which is why, as a divorce and custody mediator, I think that it needs to be on the shelf of divorcing families. Reading about a fictional girl and a fictional family (with twisted dynamics and dysfunction different from our own twisted dynamics and dysfunction) can teach us a lot about what we really do not want to do. Divorcing parents may read "How To" books, but fiction is different -- there is a visceral response to fiction that cuts to the emotional bone.
Set in New Jersey decades ago, when Levitt-towns were all the buzz and Polaroid cameras the latest rage, The Divorce Girl centers on Deborah Shapiro, a teen who struggles to both make sense of and distance herself from the excruciating realties of her life by taking pictures. Her loyalty is tested in myriad ways. She is asked to choose which parent to live with: will it be the one who loves her ... or the one who needs her to take care of him and whose love she has constantly tried to earn?
This novel could be a primer on what not to do in a divorce: do not use children as confidantes; do not blame the other parent; do not blame the children; do not expect a child to fulfill an adult role; do not put your kids down; do not bring other people into the picture before .... the list goes on. Deborah's father, who is abusive and narcissistic, does every one. Deborah's mom makes some mistakes, but she is capable of putting her kids' needs first. Meanwhile, Deborah, fueled by the innocent belief that, if she just tries harder she can make it all work, and with a warped sense of what loyalty requires, struggles to patch together a life.
The Divorce Girl is also a primer on the invisible turmoil inside children's minds and hearts -- the fears, guilt, and emotional conflicts. Parents can tell their kids a hundred times, "It's not your fault," but children often cannot believe the reassurance. Kids may even welcome the guilt because, as one 12-year old girl once explained to me, "If I'm the cause, then maybe I can be the un-cause. I can make it go away. I can make them get back together." Sometimes accepting blame is the price of a tenuous feeling of influence or control of an out-of-control situation.
Mirriam-Goldberg is the former Poet Laureate of the state of Kansas, a much respected author of many volumes of poetry and non-fiction. In this, her first novel, the main character takes photos to make sense of her life, but Mirriam-Goldberg uses words to create scenes, vivid and unforgettable, in her reader's minds. It is a parallel process -- Deborah takes a picture as we, the readers, adjust our perception.
When a family is in the midst of a divorce, parents need every tool available to help children cope -- to dig deep and act with every ounce we possess of maturity, respect, understanding and compassion. The Divorce Girl is not a 'fun' read, but it will help any parent better understand the impact of their behavior on their children -- and motivate better behavior. Readers may find themselves watching life through a different lens, clicking an imaginary shutter to freeze and preserve a moment, thus becoming more clear about the kind of parent and person they want to be.
Susan Kraus is a marriage and family therapist, custody mediator and writer. Her novel, All Gods Children, about a custody battle over a child who is in the Westboro Baptist Church, is scheduled to be released in late September.