Gin, Lipstick and Cigarettes: Inside a Glamorous Midcentury Divorce Ranch

THE DIVORCÉES, by Rowan Beaird

My grandmother — who was born in Kobe in 1916, married in Calcutta and raised two children in the postwar London suburbs — used to tell me that the 1920s and 1930s were a wonderful time to be a woman. “Then the ’50s came,” she would continue, indignant, “and it’s as if they fell asleep.”

After years of World War II resistance dramas, the American midcentury is back in literary style. Readers are devouring tales of loutish men and unhappy housewives, their wits benumbed by barbiturates and the patriarchy until some cutting-edge feminist messiah appears to teach them lessons in chemistry. Not all housewives wait around for emancipation, however. In Rowan Beaird’s debut novel, “The Divorcées,” a few plucky, well-heeled dames gather in Reno, Nev., to rusticate at the Golden Yarrow ranch for six weeks — the length of time required to establish Nevada residency — and file for divorce.

As settings go, a Reno divorce ranch poses certain challenges. The marriage breakup lies behind; the new life beckons ahead. What’s a character to do in the meantime? Indeed, when Lois Gorski Saunders arrives at the Golden Yarrow from Lake Forest, Mich., she doesn’t bring much in the way of plans, other than a future unshackled from the prospect of children with her awful husband, Lawrence. (“Girls don’t usually come here because they have not-awful husbands,” points out one of the ranch’s chaperones.) The socially awkward Lois avoids the morning horseback rides and the nightly expeditions to the local watering hole; at mealtimes, she spins elaborate lies to obscure both her Polish background and her father’s meatpacking fortune from her supercilious fellow guests — who, still stuck in the habits of bourgeois marriage, trudge through the daily routine of shopping and gossip in search of something to shake them up.

Enter Greer Lang in a taxi in the middle of the night, just in the nick of time. She’s everything you’d expect from a woman named Greer circa 1950 — all button-down shirts and tailored trousers and sass. She flaunts a shiner on her face and a properly mysterious past, and she prods the Golden Yarrow’s ladies-in-waiting into acts of increasingly daring mischief, fueled by increasing rounds of cocktails. Her “smile widens with every escalation: the nipped bottle of champagne, the tangle of maraschino cherry stems Lois slips into a man’s chest pocket.” Lois is spellbound. When they’re together, “Lois feels like herself, like the person she wants to be.” Naturally, Greer is spinning a few lies of her own.

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