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Novel set in a “Divorce Ranch” outside RENO, Nevada.

12th April 2024

The Divorcées by Rowan Beaird, novel set in a Divorce Ranch outside Reno, Nevada.

Novel set in a "Divorce Ranch" outside RENO, Nevada.

Divorce ranches were a key player in Nevada’s once-thriving divorce industry. For decades, legally married women from  across America would check in for the stipulated six weeks and would leave with their divorce papers in hand. They were contracted to remain in Nevada after their stint, but few did. The book is set in the 1950s and in those days there were only a few reasons that would facilitate a divorce, such as extreme cruelty, drunkenness, impotency, felony and insanity… The divorce ranches helped Nevada out of the years of depression by boosting the state’s economy.

We first meet Lois on the train, heading West to Reno and on a mission to secure her divorce. Her father is bank-rolling her stay on the ranch, The Golden Yarrow. We soon learn that she feels like “a girl with no story“, someone who is insignificant and awkward. She nevertheless is savvy enough to get a grip on the subtexts and personalities underpinning this community of women. Of course, there are women who are in the inner circle, and others like Lois who are largely on the outside looking in, so reminiscent of school playground dynamics.

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Lois has decided on this course of action because she is married to Lawrence, who is a coercive controller and who has removed her contraceptive device. He wants her to get pregnant but she is determined that she doesn’t want to become a mother, and once she establishes she is not pregnant, she takes off for Nevada. Once there, she discovers that her marital experiences are commonplace and perhaps even at the mild end of the abuse spectrum.

A new woman descends on the ranch. The anticipation in the ranch is great, as her arrival is cloaked in secrecy. Could it be several times divorced Bette Davis? It turns out to be a wealthy woman named Greer, who is a strong personality.and is set to stir up the group dynamics. Greer and Lois spend time getting to know each other by the ranch’s pool, where Lois plunges in almost to expunge memories of her former life, honing her body becoming more sleek and toned with each day. And of course they read Rebecca, a natural choice, perhaps, given their circumstances and the subject of many of their conversations. Gradually they become so used to the way of life and their routines that the prospect of life beyond the walls of the ranch feels quite strange. Six weeks is a good period of time to begin to feel institutionalised.

The women – as a group – often head into Reno in the evening, to have a good time. They are also on the look-out for celebrities, who can be found there indulging in the “lush clubs and casinos..”. Imagine one evening spotting Clarke Gable!

The humdrum existence with evening highlights in town is, however, soon shattered…

I was looking forward to reading this, given that it is such an extraordinary subject, but I didn’t feel I really got to know the women, and the descriptions – although well written – of their quotidian lives felt quite monotonous. A great concept, good writing and storytelling but I just felt it was overall too slow and a bit ponderous.

Tina for the TripFiction Team 

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