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May 5, 2009

Chick lit tropes crash The Divorce Party

East Coast WASPs are jockeying for invitations to the hottest social event of the season, and it’s not the Black and White Ball. These days, in seaside enclaves from Bar Harbor to Hilton Head, the datebooks of the well-heeled are filled with a new type of (dis)engagement—the divorce party. In her aptly titled new novel, Laura Dave invites her readers to a separation celebration.

The Divorce Party follows the romantic misadventures of the über-rich Huntington family. Except for owning the swankiest house in Montauk, the Huntingtons prefer to hide their wealth by driving ancient Volvo station wagons and wearing hand-me-downs. The millions of dollars come in handy, though, when Mr. and Mrs. Huntington decide to divorce and host the biggest anti-commitment ceremony of all time.

Food writer Maggie Mackenzie, fiancée of Huntington scion Nate, meets the family for the first time during this oddly feel-good event. Unaware that her betrothed is sitting on stacks of cash and is really named Champ, Maggie is broadsided with this information by her soon-to-be in-laws. Maggie prepares to walk home to New York City, understandably upset by Nate’s lies and incredibly confident in the strength of her legs.

Meanwhile, the Huntington’s other child, Gwyn, is unmarried and pregnant by a French rocker named Denis (that’s pronounced “Den-ee,” you philistine) who may or may not be coming to the party. In short, everybody’s relationship is on the brink of ending by the time a nicely symbolic mini-hurricane arrives to make the party more interesting. If this plot sounds like standard fare for a chick flick, it might be helpful to note that this is the first novel to be adopted by Jennifer Aniston’s new production company.

Dave works with good material and ideas but falls back on standard chick lit plotting in the end. Tellingly, the divorce turns out not to be due to Mr. Huntington’s conversion to Buddhism but something far more pedestrian. The most disappointing thing, however, is Dave’s treatment of her female characters. Supposedly strong and independent, the Huntington women turn out to be willing to sacrifice themselves for their men’s happiness.

The strength of the novel clearly lies in the details. The pot-smoking, red velvet cake–baking Mrs. Huntington is a memorable character not for her stoicism, but for her eccentricities. One of Nate’s old flames is described as looking better from below, an acutely sharp insult. Naming the ex-girlfriend “Murph,” however, simply pushes the characterization from biting to ridiculous.

For all her good intentions, Dave fails to create characters that are worth caring about. Everyone comes off as a bit too self-involved, looking out solely for themselves. There has rarely been a “happy” family as detached from one another as the Huntingtons. In the end, it’s hard to sympathize with characters that constantly go into hysterics over each other’s actions, only to return to the status quo. If you’re looking for a fun, light read for the beach, this is one Party you can skip.

The Divorce Party on Amazon