Wrangling failing marriages at the divorce ranch

Book Reviews

This review was first published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette March 24, 2024

Divorce books are having a moment. Recent titles such as “This American Ex-Wife,” by Lyz Lenz, “Splinters” by Leslie Jamison and “Strong Passions: A Scandalous Divorce in Old New York” have become sensations – and that was just in February. Even children’s books are creating an industry with myriad books about how to help children cope after divorce.

Now, “The Divorcees,” a debut novel from author Rowan Beaird, paints a vivid picture of divorce, set in the landscape of Nevada in the 1950s. The metaphor between the dry, desolate, barren landscape and characters is aptly drawn.

The story is set at the Golden Yarrow, a divorce ranch in Reno, where legally married women from other states could check in and, six weeks later, check out single. The Golden Yarrow is a five-star ranch, unlike others that cater to less privileged women.

Lois Saunders thought marrying Lawrence was her key to contentment and happiness, yet between him and her overbearing father who treats her like property, she feels trapped in her own life. The women at the ranch become friends, and frenemies, while exploring what a life without a husband will mean for each of them. Lois had not thought that far ahead because it took her summoning all of her courage just to get this far.

A reader will feel the emotional and financial desperation of the divorcees that come to the ranch, and will understand the lack of choices and freedom they have, even as they are in the process of ostensibly gaining independence through divorce. Female friendships in this book, much like in the films “A League of Their Own” and “Thelma and Louise,” look back at how women helped (and help) each other in times of distress and hardship in a country that treated (and still treats) them as second-class citizens.

Nuance and gray areas

In one scene, some women from the ranch go out for a night on the town and visit a bar. Speaking to the women, a bartender sums up a not-uncommon feeling about divorce at that time: “Listen, just remember what the good Lord says in Matthew about what you all have done: ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ Hope you whores sleep well tonight in your wagon thinking about that.”

And so it goes.

Pivotal character Greer Lang — who changes lives, Lois’ and other women’s at the ranch — shows up well into the book, yet her character is well-written and (almost) worth the wait. She is a no-nonsense, tough woman who does not suffer fools for a second and Ms. Beaird’s dialog puts a reader on edge. What will Lang do next? And what kind of trouble will she get Lois into?

Women today will recognize the nuance and gray areas the women of the era “The Divorcees” occupy and will applaud Ms. Beaird for representing them, as so many 1950’s retrospectives have not. The women are brave, strong, weak, tearful, messy and complicated. They are fully realized humans. They are at once middle-school cliquey and gun-wielding outlaws in the face of dangerous ex-husbands. In another time, they would be powerful CEOs.

During their time at the ranch, the women learn to drop the act that being a woman requires and are able to be themselves. To quote singer Taylor Swift, they learn “It’s all good if you’re bad/​and it’s okay if you’re mad” — something no one has taught them before.

The patriarchy has taught women that divorce is bad, but through divorce — and camaraderie at the ranch — they learn to be themselves and take the first steps toward freedom.

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