05 October 2009

Book Review: Susannah, A Lawyer by Ruth Rymer

Susannah, A Lawyer: From Tragedy to Triumph
by Ruth Rymer

212 3rd Avenue North
Suite 290
Minneapolis, MN 55401
325 pages
978-1934938416$ 14.95

Rape. Sexual Harassment. Deeply ingrained, gender-based social mores. Victim blaming. The Denial of a woman’s identity. Trafficking in women (daughters) for social and economic advancement. Any one of these topics could be the subject of a lengthy body of work, but Ruth Rymer manages to draw all of the most common challenges facing women in the 19th century into Susannah’s journey from the halls of Mount Holyoke to the defendant’s chair, to a seat in one of the top firms in Chicago to read law before taking the bar exam. In Susannah, A Lawyer, Ruth Rymer manages to bring to life the complex world of intelligent women in a time where attending college was for meeting husbands, not for building careers.

One challenge of writing historical fiction is establishing the time and social climate in a period that is not in an unimaginable past in a relatable, clear manner. Conveying the differences between current social perspectives and perspectives from the past is a challenge for any historical fiction author. Add to that the need to unveil similarities between past and present social issues (sexual harassment, for example) that may seem simplified and “solved,” and you have a task that few authors are capable of negotiating effectively. At first glance, the layer upon layer of circumstantial bad luck that Susannah encounters from the first chapter to the last seems to be an almost over-saturation of political and social points. But when taken in conjunction with the period in which Susannah, A Lawyer is set, and the impact that historical fact plays on the pursuit of a law degree by a woman, her obstacles, and the strategies she employs in overcoming those obstacles, the laundry list of assaults by friends, family, and society all become representative of the struggles women of the 19th century faced collectively. In this respect, Rymer’s juggling of controversial issues (both in the 19th century and now) with historical accuracy and engaging dialogue makes the comparison between Susannah and the reader inevitable.

Don’t mistake Rymer’s accessible writing for lack of sophistication. Susannah is full of well researched detail of language, social mores, apparel, and customs of diverse groups of people. Rymer’s experience in law is immediately evident but not intimidating, and through the voice of Susannah, readers are able to encounter reading law with the same confidence she does. Rymer creates a cast of memorable and three dimensional characters that are fallible and real. Few are absolutely despicable. Few are completely lovable. Because of the range of experiences and actions of her characters, Susannah becomes more realistic, and the end of this novel leaves the reader expecting to hear the next installment over tea in the salon tomorrow rather than waiting for a sequel. Susannah becomes a character readers grow frustrated with because of her naivete in social situations that modern readers are all too familiar with, but at the same time the audience can’t help but root for her to stand up for herself, to challenge barriers and to be the path blazing woman the title promises.

VBT Interview: Ruth Rymer

This is the first of two posts to go up on Lyrique Tragedy Reviews today for Ruth Rymer’s Virtual Book Tour for her new book Susannah, A Lawyer: From Tragedy to Triumph. (For the review, click here). Ruth was kind enough to answer a few questions that the book raised for me as I was reading it for review. Considering the topic of Susannah, Ruth’s background is that much more relevant and influenced the questions I asked:

About Ruth Rymer (From the Author’s website):

An early women’s rights scholar, Ruth Rymer practiced Family Law and lectured on “Women and the Law” in California before retiring to write. She holds a Ph.D. in Human and Organizational Systems from The Fielding Institute and wrote her dissertation on the historical, sociological, and psychological aspects of divorce.

Dr. Rymer, listed in Best Lawyers in America 1988-2000, is Past President of both Queen’s Bench (Bay Area women attorneys) and the Northern California Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

The author lives in the Bay Area with her husband. Susannah is her second book.

Dawn: Why historical fiction? Did you develop the legal and social issues you wanted to address first, or did you choose the time period and then extrapolate issues based on the period?

Ruth: Both. I like the time period. I know something about my great grandmother who was born at the same time and same place as Susannah. I am fascinated by the period thirty years after the first women’s rights conference, as women timidly began to shatter their chains. And finally, as a lawyer, I wanted to explore how hard it was for women to become attorneys initially. I’d read and taught about Myra Bradwell, the first woman lawyer in America, and wanted to bring her in as a mentor to my protagonist.

Dawn: Susannah is a very modern thinking character. How did you balance historical accuracy with modern notions of women? Was any aspect more difficult than another?

Ruth: Where women are concerned, there is always a first–the first woman lawyer, the first woman doctor, dentist, Congresswoman, Governor. No woman breaks out of the women’s sphere prison without “modern thinking.” To me, it is survival thinking–living one’s life by relying on oneself.

I loved the research and the writing. Editing and birthing the book were difficult.

Dawn: Do you consider Susannah, A Lawyer a feminist novel?

Ruth: I could argue that both ways, but in general I find feminism more shrill than it should be to bring women into full partnership in society with men. I tried to avoid lacing Susannah with feminist anger. That’s for the reader, if she would like, or not.

Dawn: You tackle domestic violence, rape and stigmatization of the victim, divorce, social and legal boundaries for women, and the right to independence and education of women in Susannah, A Lawyer (to name just a few). Why include all of these issues in one novel?

Ruth: I wanted to present a slice of life from 1877 to 1880. Any woman living during that period would encounter at least some of the issues presented in the novel, and a woman lawyer would deal with all of them in her quest to bring justice to her clients.

Dawn: Susannah, A Lawyer is historical fiction, but your protagonist and her struggles are anything but incidental. What do you want readers to walk away with once they finish reading?

Ruth: I think I’d like readers to miss Susannah after finishing the book. I’d like readers to appreciate the freedom we have now and to understand how much better we control our destinies than women did in 1880. Most of all, I hope readers will find Susannah a really good read!

Thank you, Ruth, for taking the time to answer my questions and to address some topics for discussion. Readers can get the book at Amazon and Ruth’s website (among other places). And read an excerpt of Susannah, A Lawyer on the book site, so go check it out and get reading. I promise it will leave you with plenty to talk about!