Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, here is my honest opinion of The Divorce Girl: A Story of Art and Soul by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, a bittersweet coming-of age-drama which I finished reading last week.
Characters: The Divorce Girl is packed with interesting characters, well-defined and sympathetically written, starting with teen-aged protagonist Deborah Shapiro.
Deborah is a good kid, striving to survive her parents’ divorce. The divorce, the conflicts leading up to it, and the unhappy aftermath batter her unmercifully.
Deborah is well-characterized — a basically, quiet, observant girl who wants to do the right thing. She’s capable of flashes of spirit, imagination and obstinacy. In love with photography from an early age, Deborah describes the characters she meets with a photographer’s insight. Here’s an image of Fatima, a Greek woman with whom Deborah’s father has an affair, emerging on a print as Deborah develops photos in the darkroom:
She had a face a little like one of those finely drawn horses on a Greek vase—high, wide cheekbones and large, dark eyes. Her lips were too large for her face, especially in this photo where she was neither smiling nor frowning, just staring right through the camera and me.
Deborah’s father dominates much of the book — a tall, emotionally violent businessman. In the book’s later stages his emotional violence creeps toward the physical, introducing a real note of danger into the story.
He’s balanced by positive influences in Deborah’s life. Liz, Deborah’s photography teacher and mentor; and later in the book the “weird” Rabbi Lyn:
He was large and lumpy, with hair down to his waist and long skinny legs. According to the tittering temple secretary, he had just been thrown out of a New York City synagogue for being “too radical.”
“Tea?” he asked, flashing a collection of herbal tea bags. We shook our heads, but I was nevertheless entranced by the smell of the apple-cinnamon tea brewing in his “McGovern in ‘72” mug.
It’s a fine colorful cast. Deborah’s sharp eye brings them out in all their deep, rich, human glory.
Plot: Photography and several decent human beings help Deborah navigate her parents’ nasty conflict and divorce, and its unhappy aftermath, which places Deborah in danger of physical abuse.
Setting: The story’s setting is 1970’s New Jersey. Caryn dabs in just enough touches of polyester, John Denver, The Partridge Family, and Gerald Ford to give a sense of the time, without making it intrusive.
Deborah spends some of her time working for her Dad at New Jersey’s famous Englishtown Auction, “which according to Fatima was the biggest flea market in the free world.” She sells irregulars of polyester stretch pants and tops to large women.
Caryn’s deft use of details brings the auction to life with just a few words, almost, imho, like an impressionist painting:
Fatima and I walked through the auction together in early spring, just after the afternoon rush. She was talking fast, leading me past pickled pig’s feet and giant salamis in search of a dress I could wear in court. The first stand we visited had nothing but strapless beaded gowns that reeked of old popcorn, vinegar, and cotton candy. I snapped a few close-ups of the wares.
I really like how the setting descriptions blend with Deborah’s own thoughts, perceptions and daydreams:
We next passed a nest of sweater dresses, Izod shirt dresses, and giant floral muumuus hawked by a tiny girl with long yellow hair who cried, “Muumuus, get your muumuus, cheap and big!” Fatima steered me into a cocoon of racks that held business attire, stiff navy suits with double-breasted jackets. I let her pick out something for me and hold it up against my torso with my camera still poking through. All the while I was staring at a rack of tea-length dresses, particularly an off-white one with little roses at the bodice. I might wear that very dress to prom next year. I would lean over the ledge of a white balcony as Mr. Lexington brought me a glass of champagne. “Sorry about your life lately,” he’d say. Then he’d bend down and kiss me lightly on the lips, his hand holding my chin.
“Sorry about your life lately” ~ that gave me an honest chuckle.
Other places in the story – house, diner, temple, shop – equally get just the right amount of attention; enough to establish, and even contribute something interesting, but without being a distraction.
What I thought could’ve been done better: This is a tough one. Caryn is obviously a master writer. This is not even the kind of book I’d normally read. Yet I found it completely absorbing. In the hands of a great writer, any subject matter can compel.
Nevertheless, I’m on record as claiming that “if you don’t find something to like and something that could be improved, you haven’t read closely enough.” So here’s my one big crit:
The story lacked personal description of the protagonist — unless I missed it somehow. Deborah is brilliantly defined by action and dialogue, but the wonderful descriptions she gives to others are lacking for herself.
Perhaps it’s on purpose in the way that the photographer never likes to be on the lens side of the camera. And it can be awkward for a narrator to describe herself without resorting to the cliche of the reflection in the mirror.
I imagined Deborah as looking like one of the girls in my own youth group from Temple Sinai, in Portsmouth, Va., where I grew up, also in the 70s. But which girl? Karen? Amy? Linda? Theresa?
Caryn helped me to a precise vision of each of her compelling supporting characters. I wish she could have extended that to the main character. Caryn, if you did, and I missed it, holler at me and I’ll amend the review.
The only other thing I’ve got is that there were a couple of instances of stray question marks in my Kindle edition. Yep, I’m stretching here.
What I thought was good: Basically — everything. Since I mentioned personal description, let’s start with that. Here’s Geraldine, a minor character in the narrative:
The day after my father told me about the divorce, my mother told my brother. “Tit for tat,” she explained, as we sat at the kitchen counter with Geraldine, her nervous, giraffe-like older sister. Aunt Geraldine often laughed uncontrollably while covering her mouth at the same time, shielding the sane world from her crazy laugh. Geraldine was what my mother called “willowy,” although I thought it was just a nice way of saying tall and skinny.
“…nervous, giraffe-like older sister.” — Love it!
Caryn switches seamlessly into episodes of emotional intensity:
“A shrink? You’re taking me to a shrink?” We were pulling into the parking lot in front of a small building with a sign that simply read, “Professional Building.”
“A psychologist. He’s very nice, calm, a sweet man, and he specializes in families like us.” She settled into a parking spot near the entrance and eased the transmission into park.
“I’m not going. You said this was just to get photo supplies. I’m not going to see anyone—I don’t care what you want to do.” My voice sounded strangely calm, although I felt myself starting to shake.
“Deborah, calm down. It will be nice for you. It will be fun—you can even call me names.”
“I don’t care, I’m not going!”
“Yes, you are going,” she said, more sternly now.
I’m not. You tricked me, and you can’t make me do anything. You’re just like Dad said you were.”
“Now young lady, you listen to me.”
“Fuck you!” I screamed. I’d never said those words to anyone before.
The story also offers some great insight into photography.
“Interesting things happen all the time,” Liz was saying. “You just have to have your eyes open. Tell yourself to look at everything as if it’s a shot. Think about how to frame it.”
She went on to explain why we never wanted to center the main subject of the photo; that was too obvious.
“You want to hang out and groove with your best friend, so maybe you shoot your friend from the level of her alarm clock, making her smaller and time bigger. That’s asymmetry. That’s what makes kick-ass photos—when you catch something so obvious, yet so unexpected.”
I liked how Caryn does just that — blends the obvious and the unexpected. Frankly, any passage in this novel is going to flash gold.
Overall: So who writes a perfect book? This one comes as close as I’ve ever seen. There is so much I enjoyed about The Divorce Girl. Its resounding ring of emotional truth; its message of hope in the face of adversity; the masterful use of language verging in places on poetry; the spotlight on the value of art; but most of all I appreciated the novel’s accessibility.
In the end it’s just a damned good story.
Great job Caryn!