Family Law

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Published by: Viking
Release Date: May 4, 2021
Pages: 304
ISBN13: 978-1984880628



Set in the early ’80s, Family Law follows a young lawyer, Lucia, who is making a name for herself at a time when a woman in a courtroom is still a rarity. She’s received plenty of threats for her work extricating women and children from troubled relationships, but her own happy marriage has always felt far removed from her work. When her mother’s pending divorce brings teenaged Rachel into Lucia’s orbit, Rachel finds herself captivated not only with Lucia, but with the change Lucia represents. Rachel is outspoken and curious, and she chafes at the rules her mother lays down as the bounds of acceptable feminine behavior. In Lucia, Rachel sees the potential for a new path into womanhood. But their unconventional friendship takes them both to a crossroads. When a moment of violence—a threat made good—puts Rachel in danger, Lucia has to decide how much her work means to her and what she’s willing to sacrifice to keep moving forward.

Written in alternating voices from Lucia and Rachel’s perspectives, Family Law is a fresh take on what the push for women’s rights looks like to the ordinary women and girls who long for a world redefined. Addressing mother daughter relationships and what roles we can play in the lives of women who aren’t our family, the novel examines how we shape each other and how we make a difference. The funny, strong, and yet tender-hearted female leads of Family Law illuminate a new take on timeless Southern fiction—atmospheric, rich, and with quietly surprising twists and nuances all its own.

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Why this Book?

I had several mothers who were not related to me at all, and my life is different because of them. A handful of teachers, particularly, opened up the world to me. In my previous novel Fierce Kingdom, I explored what it means to be a mother. In Family Law, I was interested in other kinds of mothers—women who reach out to students or neighbors or children wandering church aisles and sidewalks. Women who take the time and effort and humor to love that child and potentially open up new paths for them.

Years ago, I was working as a freelancer and interviewed a local lawyer in Birmingham for a piece about notable women. She stuck with me. When I started thinking about a novel centering on how women shape each other, she came to mind. I grew up in Montgomery, Al., in the 1980s, and my world was steeped in traditional notions of what a woman should be. I wondered what a girl like me might have thought about a woman like her.

And, finally, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book that really captures the South I grew up in. It was urban and suburban and rural, with winding dirt roads but also shopping mall food courts and downtown traffic jams and Shakespearean theater and classmates applying to Stanford and Yale. It was a place full of conservatives and liberals, gay and straight, pick-up trucks and station wagons and Miatas. Tied to the past but pulled to the future, too. I wanted to try to capture the place that I’ve known, a place that doesn’t always match the fictional version.




Lucia Gilbert listened as the two men in sherbet-colored suits spun their fairy tale.

            “I bathe her,” said the father, unfidgeting on the witness stand. “Put on diaper cream. Feed her. She loves peaches. Honestly, my daughter is the best part of my day.”

            “So you’re an involved parent?” asked his lawyer, Rob Letson, syrup-voiced, as if he didn’t know that over the past year the man had repeatedly left his two-year-old daughter home alone.

            “I know every hair on her head,” the father said.

            He was well-packaged, Lucia would give him that. His pale green suit set off his dark eyes, and his pleasant face was still untouched by his nighttime habits. He kept his hands out of sight, though, and Lucia wondered if Letson had finally noticed that his client’s fingertips were like open wounds, chewed so ravenously that the nail beds were infected. Lucia spent a decent portion of her days reaching across one desk or another to shake a hand—sun-blotched, meaty, limp, veins bulging, nails glossy as buttons—and hands could tell you things.

            Netta Peterson nudged Lucia with a sharp elbow.  “He’s lying.”

            Lucia patted her client’s hand. Netta and her husband were both white-haired and crinkle-eyed: their only flaws were Richard’s Lucky Strikes and Netta’s chattiness.

            “She hasn’t touched peaches for months,” Netta hissed. “When Alice was alive, the man never did anything. He didn’t even mow the yard. Or change a light bulb.”

            “I know, Netta,” Lucia whispered.

            At the front of the courtroom, Rob Letson scuffed one loafer along the wooden floor.  “Your late wife’s parents are accusing you of negligence. Do you believe they have any motivation other than the welfare of your daughter?”

            “We’re accusing him of getting so loaded that we can’t wake him up,” Netta muttered, warm-breathed. She smelled of baby powder and, possibly, bacon. “The baby crying in the crib, soaked through.”

            Lucia patted her hand more firmly.

            “I believe,” the father said, “that since they lost their daughter—my Alice—they want to start over with their granddaughter. It’s like—this is terrible to say, I know—they think they’re owed a replacement.”

            Netta jerked hard enough that her chair tipped slightly.

            Letson walked to his table, lifting a paper in a plastic sleeve. “Did your in-laws ever express that thought in writing?”

            Lucia had known he would try this. The nasty letter had no date and no envelope. It likely had been typed by the father himself.

            “I object, Your Honor,” she said. “That document has not been authenticated.”

            “Sustained,” said Judge Mitchell, a petite man who looked even smaller in his robes.

            Rob dropped his arm, the letter slapping his thigh.  “Mr. Thompson, have the Petersons ever attempted to keep your daughter from you?”

            “They threatened me.”

            “How did they threaten you?”

            “I object,” Lucia said. “At the risk of being repetitive, the document Mr. Letson is referencing has not been authenticated.”

            The pleasant-faced father lifted a hand, brushing at one smooth lapel. She could see his gnawed fingers.

            “Sustained,” said the judge.

            Letson walked over to her table and bent down, his gold watch catching the overhead lights.

            ”Gilbert,” he said, quietly enough that the judge couldn’t hear. “You don’t even know what the word ‘authentication’ means.”

            She let her eyes drift to his belt buckle.

            “Letson,” she said. “Your fly is unzipped.”

            His eyes flickered down, assessing. He ran a hand, quickly, from hipbone to hipbone. His zipper was fine.

            Lucia smiled.

            “Mr. Letson?” said Judge Mitchell. “Ms. Gilbert?”

            Rob delayed one more second. He leaned closer to Lucia.

            “Fuck you,” he said.

            Netta Peterson inhaled sharply.

            “It’s fine,” Lucia said to the older woman, as Letson turned away. “He just knows he’s going to lose.”

             He’d known it, surely, from the beginning. Why had he even taken this case? Rob Letson was one of the good ones. He enjoyed the back and forth of it all, and when she beat him, he would offer to buy her a drink and then harass her for disliking beer.

            “He’s hateful,” Netta whispered, wide-eyed.

             Lucia felt a rush of affection for this woman who had lived so long but could still be shocked by a curse word. She had no idea about real hate, something Letson didn’t have. The balding man sitting in the row of chairs behind Letson, though—every line of him was rigid. Now as Letson rested a hand on his table and faced the witness, the balding man lunged forward, clamping a hand on the lawyer’s shoulder.

            Letson twisted away. The two men exchanged a handful of words.

            “Do you know him?” Lucia asked softly.

            “An uncle, I think,” Netta said.

            As Judge Mitchell slapped his palms against solid oak, the man settled back in his chair. Soon the father was giving smooth answers again, and Netta was back to adding her asides: Does he even know her birthday? Does he know her shoe size? Never even runs a brush through her hair. How’s he gonna teach a girl how to be a girl?

            In another hour, they were finished for the day. The Petersons wanted to hash through every exchange, word-for-word, and Lucia knew it mattered to them, so she didn’t rushWhen she was finally free, she turned down a hallway and ran into the lawyer for the Cox case, and they circled around each other for a bit. She passed four men who had already heard the zipper story from Rob Letson.

            By the time she pushed through the glass doors of the courthouse, the sun was dipping behind First Baptist Church and the Montgomery skyline was turning to shadows. She was later than she’d intended. She pressed her purse to her hip and tightened her grip on her briefcase. She could set a fast pace, even in heels, and the stoplights were in her favor. Soon enough she was turning onto South Perry Street, the steep roof of her office building showing stark against the sky. She cut through the lawn to the parking lot in back, grabbing for her keys.

            Her car was the only one left in the lot. Halfway across the asphalt toward it, she skidded on a patch of gravel, jerking to a stop. The trees overhanging the lot deepened the shadows, but there was no mistaking what she saw.

            A smashed windshield, cracks spidering out.

            The strong smell of urine, the wet shine of it running down her front tire, pooling underneath.

            She spun, certain she heard footsteps, but no one was there.