By: Anne Morse|Published: September 21, 2009 7:02 PM
I picked up a novel at the bookstore, caught by the author’s name. Laura Dave was my instructor at a writer’s workshop in Taos, New Mexico, a couple of summers ago.
The point of her first novel, London is the Best City in America, made an impression on me—that in life, we have to choose between the options we have, not the options we’d like to have. So I was eager to read Dave’s second novel, titled The Divorce Party, which she had finished just before the conference began.
The Divorce Party is a terrific read (although it contains some language and situations some readers would find objectionable). Dave picks up on a trend our grandparents would have found truly bizarre: throwing a party to mark one’s divorce—to celebrate the years a couple had together, and let friends and family know that the parting is both mutual and civilized.
Except, of course, it seldom is. Couples part because 1) they can’t stand one another other any longer, or 2) one person walks out on the other—often because he or she has found someone else.
Such is the case with Dave’s characters, Gwyn and Thomas Huntington, wealthy residents of Montauk, New York. On the 35th anniversary of their wedding, the Huntingtons are having a divorce party, as several of their friends have done. The party is to be a lavish affair, with masses of flowers, music, and catered food. But as the story plays out, it becomes clear that Gwyn still loves her husband and wants to stay married to him.
Both Gwyn and Thomas will make speeches at the divorce party to let their children and their friends know they are moving on—especially Thomas, who has been exploring Buddhism. Thomas has told Gwyn that he doesn’t think she will fit in with the new direction of his life. But Gwyn has discovered that Buddhism is a cover for the real reason Thomas is leaving her: He has fallen in love with a much younger woman. Consequently, Gwyn has planned a little divorce party surprise for Thomas.
The novel is being turned into a film, which means a wide audience will soon be confronted with the question: Are divorces something we should celebrate? Should we rejoice over the breaking of vows-and quite often, the destruction of families?
Dave herself has mixed feelings about the parties. “On one level,” she says, “a divorce party makes sense to me as a concept: Let’s celebrate what we’ve had, as opposed to letting it end acrimoniously. On another level, I think marital break-ups are difficult for a reason: They are supposed to be. Something sacred between two people has broken down.”
And as her novel illustrates, divorce parties are sometimes sought by the spouse who wants to discard the marriage with as little guilt as possible; the abandoned spouse is pressured into pretending that the divorce is mutually desired.
By the end of The Divorce Party, it’s clear that Thomas has come up with the Buddhism excuse to make things easier, not on his wife and children, as he claims, but on himself; his son and daughter will be far more accepting of their father leaving their mother for religion rather than a youthful mistress.
Reading The Divorce Party left me wondering what real-life divorce parties are like. Divorce party websites make it clear that 1) most divorce parties are thrown by ex-wives, and 2) the parties are a weird combination of bridal shower and revenge fantasy.
Friends come to sympathize and bring you a toaster because your ex walked off with one you shared. Guests munch slices of break-up cake—which features a plastic woman standing alone on top—and throw darts at photos of the ex-spouse.
A lot of parties involve burning things—everything from the wedding gown to an object precious to the departing husband. One site tells you how to melt the wedding band into a bullet; what the ex-wife is supposed to do with it is left unsaid (possibly for legal reasons).
Women appear to be more into these kinds of parties than men—reflecting, perhaps, the fact that women are more hurt by divorce (or possibly, more vengeful).
Marriage expert Maggie Gallagher, author of The Case for Marriage, puts her finger on why divorce parties fail as a concept. A few years ago, Gallagher wrote about watching a film clip of a divorce ceremony between Phil and Barbara Penningroth while appearing with them on CBS. Phil claimed it wasn’t the divorce that caused all the acrimony; instead, it was the “way we do divorce,” Gallagher writes.
But his ex-wife contradicted this. She said she was “devastated” when her husband announced her wanted out of their 25-year marriage. The divorce ceremony was, she said, a choice for “forgiveness.” While it’s nice (and probably healthier) that Barbara chose to forgive her husband, can we please acknowledge that it was the unwanted divorce that caused her such devastating pain in the first place?
“How can a few words mumbled over a candle...somehow massage away the sting of divorce?” Gallagher asks. “There’s something brutal at the very heart of the divorce process that Phil and Barbara...were trying very hard to deny with their prettied up ritual.
“A divorce is when one person, in this case by the sounds of it Phil, says to the woman he’s promised to cleave to for the rest of his life, that he’s tired of the deal. Divorce says, ‘I’m not going to take care of you, I won’t be responsible for you, you aren’t part of my family, I’m free to find someone better to love.’ Pardon me, Phil and Barbara, but I just don’t believe there is any very nice way to say that.”
I agree. Celebrating “what we had” works at a funeral, because both parties honored their vows until the very end. Celebrating what you had when one or both of you are walking away from it is both contradictory and hypocritical—which is why divorce parties featuring the burning of the wedding dress or turning pictures of the groom into toilet paper seem to be so much more popular than the “let’s all be civilized” type that Laura Dave writes so movingly about.
Dave is right. Divorce parties are a knife cutting into ragged ribbons the sacred promises that created the marriage—and that’s nothing to celebrate.
At their heart, they are a lie.
Anne Morse is a senior writer for BreakPoint.
Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Chuck Colson or Prison Fellowship. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.