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“Family Law: A Novel” By: Gin Phillips

“Family Law: A Novel”

Author: Gin Phillips

Publisher: Viking Press

New York


Price: $26.00 (Hardcover)

Pages: 288

Novel Explores Challenges Faced by Female Lawyer in ’80s Montgomery

With the exception of the unusual and intriguing “Come In and Cover Me,” which takes place on an archaeological dig in the American west and includes old ghosts as characters, Gin Phillips has placed each of her novels in the Alabama location that served her need.

“The Well and the Mine” is set in a little coal mining community north of Birmingham. And her recent thriller, “Fierce Kingdom,” takes place in the Birmingham Zoo.

“Family Law” is set in Montgomery, Alabama, at the courthouse and in Old Cloverdale, in the early ’80s. Although Phillips’ previous novels have featured female protagonists, this is the first that with an explicitly feminist theme. Lucia Gilbert, petite and attractive, an attorney in Montgomery, specializes in family law, that is to say mainly divorce cases, and has been given awards for her public service.

Gilbert has, I am happy to say, a kind and intelligent husband, but in almost every aspect of her professional life, she has to put up with some sensational misogyny. She gets hate mail from angry husbands she has defeated in court in divorce proceedings. We are told that in Alabama mothers almost always gets custody; fathers get angry.

Often, these men deserve no sympathy. We are told a husband who leaves almost surely has a woman waiting. One husband executed his son’s gerbil, another drove a bulldozer into his wife’s bedroom, and there was one whose wife found him “tied up with extension cords, with their real estate agent naked on top of him, rubbing his chest with a Brillo pad.” Not much chance for these fellows in court.

Less sensational and more irritating to Lucia, we are told that she had been offered a partnership just because a senior attorney hoped to sleep with her and, while one judge explained that a “short skirt makes my blood boil,” several fellow lawyers have slapped her on the butt and one offered advice: “You’d win more cases with lower-cut blouses.”

We are told at Cumberland Law in the early seventies she was one of only two female students. Today, more than half of all law students are women, which does not mean paradise has been achieved, but does call on the reader for a kind of historical outrage.

Lucia has clients, of course, and represents them vigorously.

The narrative arc of this novel involves some women who engage Lucia as attorney and some who do not.

Lucia befriends the daughter of one ex-client, Rachel, and we follow Rachel and Lucia through some incidents where women, teenager or full-grown attorney, have to worry about their safety in a world where some men are overtly nasty while others are much sneakier and, as the saying goes, “groom” a girl for assault later on. Lucia’s life is in real danger for a while and we witness the debate over whether a woman should have a tidy little pistol in her handbag for self-defense.

The teenage Rachel is something of an innocent and has to become aware of the sexual dangers in her world, dangers which may lie in some dark street in an iffy part of town or right next door.

One cannot quarrel with the messaging in this novel. Women have to put up with real dangers and with a debilitating level of anxiety over when and where these dangers may appear, but the narrative of this novel, the actual story, seemed hazy and lacked the punch that “Fierce Kingdom” or “Come in and Cover Me” had.

Phillips is a talented writer and I truly look forward to her next one.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.
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  • ASCA_Small_logo.pngNow a retired English professor at The University of Alabama, Dr. Noble's specialties are Southern and American literature. He also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.Don Noble's reviews can be heard most Mondays at 7:45am and 4:44pm. and have been made possible in part through grants from the Alabama State Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the support of The University of Alabama, and from the generous support from our listeners. Thank you!To listen to the audio version of Dr. Noble's reviews, just click on the book title to be taken to the full page. Audio is found either at the very beginning of the transcript or at the bottom of the page.Dr. Noble's Book Reviews are made possible in part with a grant from The Alabama State Council on the Arts,