‘The Divorce Girl’ is a sweet, angry, funny coming-of-age story

"The Divorce Girl" by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (Ice Cube Press, 365 pages, $19.95 paper)

Kansas poet laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, who has also written writing guides, a memoir and nonfiction, turns her hand to the novel with “The Divorce Girl.”

The book is written from the perspective of Deborah Shapiro, a high school student in 1970s New Jersey whose parents, as the title reveals, get divorced. Her father takes up with a waitress from a Greek restaurant; her mother withdraws into herself. Deborah finds an outlet in art photography, and earns a little money by helping her father with his booth selling irregular plus-size clothing at an immense flea market.

Neither parent is particularly sympathetic, but neither is a monster, either — the fact that they lost a child goes a long way in explaining their emotional states, and the fact that they’re parents to a teenager goes a long way in explaining how they deal (or don’t deal) with Deborah, who can be moody, touchy, sullen — as 15-year-olds are.

I have to admit I approached the book with a little trepidation, since the exploration of a divorce, even (especially?) from a child’s perspective, is not exactly new ground, nor is a teenage girl coming of age. But “The Divorce Girl” is a fresh, interesting story done well. By turns sad and sweet, angry and funny, the book brings you right into Deborah’s life, into the house with her, into the flea-market booth exposed to the elements, behind the camera lens as she looks at her world not as a participant but as an observer.

The writing is full of lovely surprises. Mirriam-Goldberg keeps her poet’s eye for detail and drops nice turns of phrase into the prose. Deborah’s mother one day looks “like someone dressed badly for bowling.” At the flea market, Deborah meets “a man the size of a telephone pole.”

The cast of characters — and they are “characters” in every sense of the word, but never caricatures — is diverse and a bit on the wacky side, but perfectly reflective of the variety of people almost anyone would know. The adults and teens alike are fully drawn, realistic people: sometimes quirky, sometimes annoying, sometimes laugh-provoking. A reader will want to slap them, or hug them, or cheer them on — sometimes all three in short succession. Caring that much about them is certainly a sign of a worthwhile book.