Glamour and divorce don’t usually go hand in hand, but in 1950s America, a stint in Reno, Nevada, could make the process far more elegant for women. Also, more adventurous, boozier and, most important, faster.

In her debut novel, “The Divorcées,” writer Rowan Beaird explores the moneyed wives who chose divorce – because of domestic abuse, a husband’s infidelity, a new love interest or just deep unhappiness – and gathers these women at the Golden Yarrow, the most respectable of all the divorce ranches in town. (In 1931, hoping to bring in money during the Depression, Nevada passed a law making it the quickest state for divorce. Men stayed put, sent their wives to Reno and poof! The Reno cure.)

Like the four other women she’s staying with, the book’s protagonist, Lois Saunders, must remain for six weeks to establish residency before she’s granted a divorce. Lois is under the watchful eye of ranch owner Rita, also divorced with two girls of her own, and her “right-hand woman,” Bailey, who takes the women out at night and makes sure they have a great time, but not too great a time. Reno runs on the funds of the nearly divorced, and Bailey will help these women experience another life – for six weeks, anyway – and help pump money into town.

Lois doesn’t go out at night, but she’s never had a great time in life. Unable to find her footing, she spent her childhood full of uncertainty, moving through it like a horse whose legs haven’t steadied. In Lake Forest, Illinois, she had a father who saw her as a burden and a mother who never took to mothering, then died when Lois was a teenager. Her parting message: “As awful as it is, marriage is the only way for a woman to get any freedom, trust me. … Find a husband. Anyone with money will do.”

Lois did, but she’s miserable and decides she can’t grin and bear it the way many other women do. She does not want children, so there’s little to distract her from the fact that she feels no love in her marriage. At the Golden Yarrow, she describes the relief she felt after discovering she wasn’t pregnant after a scare: “I realized that I had to leave. And I know that may seem absurd, no felonies or desertion, no new husband lined up, but I just felt that – if I stayed with him – I’d, not explode, exactly, that sounds too violent or exciting even, but collapse in on myself. That I’d disappear.”

This North Star of divorce for Lois is a fascinating force, for she is a woman riddled with insecurities. She second-guesses the clothes she wears, the way she talks, even the way she laughs. Though telling people her family is “in real estate” isn’t technically a lie, she would never divulge that her father actually owns a meatpacking plant. The women at the ranch merely tolerate her, and she knows why: She doesn’t know how to be a rich-girl-turned-woman in the 1950s. Her peers sniffed it out growing up, and her husband zeroed in on it immediately. After the “I dos” came the control, her husband reproaching her for how she dressed, how she sat, even how often she went to the movies. At the ranch, she feels the same stares. With the realization that she still doesn’t fit into a rigid mold comes the endless criticism that Lois has stored in her veins.


What puts an end to the self-hate is the arrival of Greer Lang. The mysterious – and surely moneyed – Greer is from Manhattan, Upper East Side, of course. Greer hides out in her room at first, and when she emerges, it’s with a big bruise on her face and a stylish men’s shirt wrapped around her thin frame, her pain, and iron rod of a backbone, evident. The other women are ready to be granted confidante status, but the somebody she chooses is Lois. The pair bathe in the light of the West, read “Rebecca” by the pool and eventually, on Greer’s insistence, discover the bars, booze and gambling just steps away.

While helping Lois navigate her powder keg of emotions as well as the nightlife, Greer adds a shot of intrigue for the whole house. Is she or isn’t she the abused rich girl? Is she the emerald-covered hand that Lois needs to run instead of walk? Greer is plenty entertaining, but it’s not their relationship that carries the book. It’s Lois’s evolution, her awakening in a new part of the world, that does.

It’s a slice in time that Beaird paints with the mastery of a film director. For Lois, the swimming pool doesn’t have a surface, it has skin. And the land around it is as bright and crackling as an O’Keeffe painting: “The sun hangs just above the violet line of the mountains. Beneath the maple, she notices the swing is swaying back and forth, as if someone has just jumped from it. Scanning the blond grass, she finds no one. It must have been the wind, she thinks, though the air is turgid.” You can almost hear the flick of a film reel in Beaird’s writing, the bugs hissing, the scratch of painted toenails on the stone lip of the pool.

At the Golden Yarrow, Lois’s cage is breaking. Nature has given these women space to think. For some, they’re finally free of children; for others, of fear; for all, the pressure to be the perfect wife. Yes, they go out, they get blitzed, some find a sexual awakening. But for most, it’s the space and time that heal.

Will Lois get more of it? Her divorce is guaranteed. That’s the promise of Reno. But then what?

Discussing their futures, Greer sighs and says, “Well, I’ve hoped for more for all of them.” But she knows – they all know – that for most what awaits is a second marriage, and fast. It’s a punch to the gut, as were the 1950s in general for feminism, and the repression is another crackle in the atmosphere.

“The Divorcées” is a little-known slice of history that opens up elegantly, like slowly pulling off the rind of ripe fruit. Maybe the women’s new lives won’t be good. Maybe their second acts will be worse. But they’ll be different. And that in itself is freedom.

Karin Tanabe is the author of seven novels, including “A Woman of Intelligence,” “The Gilded Years” and, most recently, “Sunset Crowd.”

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