Review: A Dazzling Debut—The Divorcées, by Rowan Beaird

No-fault divorces are currently legal in every US state, making it relatively easy to end an unhappy marriage. It may be hard to imagine how recently “irreconcilable differences” were not a legally accepted reason for divorce—but it wasn’t until 2010 that politicians in blue-as-the-sky New York officially recognized no-fault divorce as an option, and here in Illinois, prior to 2016, there was a waiting period of two years for such a divorce to be granted. That meant couples hoping for an expedited resolution (or victims of domestic abuse) had to first legally prove someone was at fault, for a state-authorized reason such as adultery, substance abuse, or abandonment.

Prior to the new laws, women who were routinely disrespected and mistreated by their spouses in less egregious ways might have had a hard time proving the required “fault” existed. Even if the cruelties inflicted were to include, say, constant insults about their appearance, or throwing out their birth control without consent, or the occasional bruised thigh from a husband pinching them hard under the table during a dinner party to encourage them to stop talking so much.

Such abuses are the case for Lois, the protagonist of Rowan Beaird’s dazzling debut novel The Divorcées. Suffocating in a loveless marriage she thought would cure her unhappiness, Lois leaves her perfect-on-paper but casually cruel husband for one of Reno’s famed “divorce ranches,” to establish the six weeks’ residency that is the only divorce requirement in Nevada. It is 1951. In this land of cowboys and casinos, women who had been variously wronged enjoy wide open spaces together, along with horseback riding, poolside gossip and innocent-enough flirting, drinking and gambling at casinos filled with curling cigarette smoke and the occasional glamor of a bona fide celebrity like Clark Gable.

Author Rowan Beaird. Photo by .Faith Kelsey Photography

The rich environment of The Divorcées is cinematic and seductive—a character unto itself—and immersing myself in the world of 1950s divorce ranches through Beaird’s exquisite detail was enough to keep me reading past my bedtime. But the Golden Yarrow ranch delivers more than the leisure and escape Lois came for: she soon finds herself in an intense, obsessive friendship with newcomer Greer, a mysterious and mischievous arrival from New York City. Greer is everything Lois is not—a bold, unselfconscious and influential force at the ranch—and soon all the other hopeful divorcees are under her spell. Lois feels “not just as if they knew one another, but as if they were meant to know one another,” and recalls the things Greer said as she goes to sleep at night, luxuriating in the words, in the smallest show of affection from her, like the thrill of a new crush.

As Greer gradually dares the women to do things they would never have considered in their married lives, from flirting with men at the nearby Highlands bar for free drinks to shooting jackrabbits in the desert to defacing private property, Lois tries on a new identity like a crisp western shirt. She questions what her late mother in Lake Forest, Illinois, once taught her, that “marriage is the only way for a woman to get any freedom,” finding a different sort of confidence through Greer’s seemingly carefree example and seeking her approval at every turn. But when the dares become increasingly bold, such as stealing chips from gamblers at casino tables, Lois has to decide how far she is willing to go to please her new friend—and what kind of woman she wants to be, once her divorce is final and she is truly free.

Lois is the kind of character who’s easy to root for, flaws and all, as she rediscovers her desires and grows more assured of the nontraditional path she intends to take after leaving the ranch. The nuanced coming-of-age story at the heart of The Divorcées feels incredibly relatable now, despite the fact that this novel is set more than 70 years ago.

Then again, perhaps it is not so hard to believe, given that conservative politicians in the US have recently called for an end to no-fault divorce, citing that it gives women too much power, among other grievances. This supposed danger to the sanctity of marriage has in fact led to decreases in domestic abuse and female suicide nationwide.

If Lois were here, I have no doubt she’d exercise her power to vote at the ballot box this fall.

The Divorcées was published by Flatiron Books in March 2024, and is available at your local independent bookstore or the publisher’s website.

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Elizabeth Niarchos Neukirch

Elizabeth Niarchos Neukirch is a Greek American writer and PR consultant for Chicago arts and nonprofit organizations. Her fiction, essays and criticism have appeared in publications including Mississippi Review, Take ONE Magazine, The Sunlight Press and The Daily Chronicle. Follow her on Twitter/X at @EJNeukirch and learn more at Photo by Diane Alexander White.