Family Law: A Novel

Family Law: A Novel

by Gin Phillips

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Overview

When an ambitious female lawyer becomes the victim of harassment, she must decide what's more important: her family's safety or the rights she's fighting for?

Set in Alabama 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 out-spoken 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 kind of timeless Southern  fiction—atmospheric, rich, and with quietly surprising twists and nuances all its own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984880628
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/04/2021
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 967,425
Product dimensions: 6.26(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Gin Phillips is the award-winning author of Fierce Kingdom and The Well and the Mine. She lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her family.

Read an Excerpt

I.

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

"I bathe her," said the father, leaning forward 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. He did not fidget. 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 Bethany was alive, the man never did anything. He didn't even mow the yard. Or change a lightbulb."

"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 Bethany-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 Lucia's 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 hip bone to hip bone. 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 rush. When 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 across the lawn to the parking lot in back, grabbing for her keys.

Her car was the only one left in the lot. A couple of yards away from it, she skidded on a gravelly patch of asphalt, 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.


II.

Lucia was not sure if she liked this woman. Not that it mattered, necessarily.

"He's a manipulator," the woman said, her red-blond hair curling over her forehead in stiff waves. She was built like a dancer. "It might seem like I should have known that from the beginning, but it took me awhile to figure it out. It works like that, doesn't it? You look back and you can see how obvious it was, but it's not that clear in the beginning, is it?"

Lucia lifted her pen a few inches above her notepad. The clock on the wall read 5:10, and the woman's every statement was a question.

"Of course," Lucia said. "How do you think he manipulated you?"

"He never loved me. Not really."

"Margaret," said Lucia. That was the woman's name. Margaret Morris. "Tell me what you're hoping will happen next. What do you want?"

The typed summary on her desk told Lucia that the husband was already out of the house and that the woman hoped for child support for one daughter.

"He told me over breakfast that he thought maybe we shouldn't have gotten married," said Margaret, shifting in her seat. "We were so young when we did it. We'd only known each other three months. He wanted counseling, he said. He wasn't happy, he said. He'd never mentioned any of that. It's crazy, isn't it? To suddenly say something like that? We were happy. There was nothing wrong except in his head."

Lucia nodded. People wanted to talk. They sometimes embellished or omitted or outright lied, but if she sat long enough, they would tell her everything. They would tell even the parts they were sure they had not told her.

"What was your response to him?" she asked.

"I told him to get out of the house. I told him I wanted a divorce."

"So he told you he wanted to go to counseling and you told him you wanted a divorce?"

Margaret slid one hand along the edge of the desk. One pale peach nail tapped the wood.

"No," she said, scuttling away from her own words. "I went along with what he wanted. I didn't make him do anything."

"And you yourself want a divorce?" Lucia asked.

"I should, shouldn't I? After he said those things to me?"

"I can't tell you what you want."

Lucia thought she had kept her tone gentle, but Margaret straightened. She took a couple of silent breaths, and when she spoke again, her voice was smoother. Professional.

"This isn't about me," she said. "Men can afford to think only about themselves, but we women understand, don't we, that it's never that simple. I'm a mother. That's the most important thing, isn't it? I can take care of my daughter with or without him. But what's best for her?"

It was the first mention she'd made of her daughter, and now Lucia recognized her. She eventually recognized every manipulator and martyr, every achiever and survivor and logic-obsessed Vulcan and child who refused to grow up. This woman, with her fresh lipstick and her jittery hands, was a paper doll. If you didn't like the self she'd chosen, she could strip it off and fold on a different one. She'd be whoever you wanted her to be. For a while.

"You're a concerned mother," agreed Lucia. "Do you want a divorce?"

"He asked me to dinner for next week," said Margaret.

She had begun talking about the difficult left turn into the Steak and Ale parking lot when a rap sounded on the office door. Lucia's secretary, Marissa, slipped inside. Short hair, tiny waist, no hips-she was efficiency manifest.

"I'm sorry to interrupt, Lucia, but I was going to head out," Marissa said, gold beads falling over the dents at her clavicles. "Unless-did you want-?"

"Go ahead," Lucia said. "I'll be fine."

"But if-"

Marissa glanced at the potential client, and Lucia did a quick count in her head. Four days. Four days since she had last walked to her car alone. Facing the familiar Chinese-red walls of her office, it felt ridiculous to want a chaperone to walk to her own car. It was no more than fifty yards. She was not a child.

"You go on," she told Marissa.

Lucia ended the meeting politely. She suggested that the next step was for Margaret to decide whether she really wanted to end her marriage. Every marriage has its ebbs and flows, she said. I appreciate you coming in.

Then Margaret was gone, and Lucia circled back behind her desk. She straightened the bow on her blouse. She signed the last stack of letters Marissa had typed up. She considered the windowsill, where the Flaming Katy was blooming effusively, the petals nearly matching the walls. Her aloe and jade plants were green and healthy, and for succulents, the whole arrangement looked lush.

Urine running through the treads of the tire.

Bits of broken glass glittering on the driver's seat.

She forced herself to stop staring at her plants. She sorted through the green file folders on her desk: Campbell, Peterson, Cox. Grounds, elements, facts, financials. She slid the Lawrence deposition and the tax returns for the Shum case into her briefcase, snapping the brass latches. She made herself turn off the lights and shut the door. She pulled her key chain from her purse, and the dangling canister of mace tangled with her keys.

She was halfway down the hall before she saw the girl in the lobby.

It was a small room, so she'd mirrored one wall of it, and that meant she could see two girls, real shoulder against reflected shoulder. Both versions were sitting sideways, gazing at the arrangement of watercolor paintings behind the reception desk. Lucia was proud of those paintings. The men who had rented the offices before her had filled the space with hunting portraits-it had been barely a year ago that she'd stared at that wall full of hounds and setters. The men had asked her if she'd like to keep them.

Hunting dogs. Dead birds in their mouths.

You needed to comfort people in the waiting room. You needed to help them feel like they'd stepped into a friend's home. Nothing too feminine: even a female client did not trust a lawyer prone to doilies. She'd invested in ocher armchairs and porcelain jar lamps, and she'd found a set of watercolors at an Oak Park art festival, impressionistic takes on movie posters, bright and interesting. Gable. Bogart. Katharine Hepburn. Cary Grant.

The girl turned her pale face. She had deep auburn hair nearly to her elbows. Lavender shirt and stonewashed jeans. Nothing shy about her look. Twelve or thirteen years old-an age Lucia felt unsure about.

"I like your paintings," said the girl.

Her legs were folded under her, and she had a book in her lap. The cover showed a long-haired man running through the jungle.

"Thank you," said Lucia. "Did you come with Margaret?"

The girl nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"You're her daughter?"

The girl nodded again. "She parked a few blocks away because she wasn't sure she'd find any closer spots. She said I could stay here while she got the car. Is that okay?"

Lucia didn't bother answering that. "What's your name?"

"Rachel." Her eyes fell on Lucia's key chain, with its pink plastic flamingo nudging against the mace. "You're going home, aren't you? I can wait outside on the porch."

"Don't be silly," Lucia said. "You're not waiting outside."

She stood there, considering. Children rarely came to her office. Occasionally a client didn't have a babysitter, but the children would linger in the lobby doing dot-to-dots or something, and Marissa would keep an eye on them. Lucia never had conversations with them.

It was absurd that the woman had left her daughter here without even asking permission.

"You don't have any posters of John Wayne," the girl said. "Have you ever seen Angel and the Badman?"

Did most twelve-year-old girls discuss Westerns? Lucia considered whether to address the sociopolitical aspects of the Duke and why she did not hang him on her wall.

"Westerns aren't my favorite," she said.

"I love Westerns," Rachel said. "And John Wayne. On Sundays they always show old movies on TBS, you know? If you think he's not a good actor, have you seen him in True Grit? Or Rooster Cogburn with Katharine Hepburn?"

Reading Group Guide

1. In the opening scene of the book, Lucia’s client scoffs at the idea of her son-in-law being able to “teach a girl how to be a girl.” Why do you think the client finds that prospect unbelievable? Do you think her sentiment persists today? How does a girl learn how to be a girl?

2. Rachel sees the fictional couple on Hart to Hart as living the sort of life she hopes to live. Do you think her fascination with Lucia and Evan is different from her television obsession? Why or why not? Did anything you saw on TV when you were young shape your hopes for your career, your relationships, or your love life? How do you feel about the shows or people you idolized when you were young?

3. Is Rachel like her mother? Is Lucia like hers?

4. At one point Lucia mentions that she doesn’t mind “a little acting.” She calls it “the next best thing to confidence. Practically the same thing.” How do these characters, at one time or another, play a role? Is the role-playing at odds with genuineness?

5. In this novel, women’s appearances often seem to influence how people perceive their intelligence. A conventionally attractive woman who also happens to be intelligent is considered surprising, and possibly dangerous. It’s clear that part of this characterization is meant to reveal how, even in our recent history, unconscious bias ran deep. How much has that bias changed, if at all? What elements of it persist today?

6. Did Marlon steal Lucia’s dog? Why do you think Lucia framed her confrontation with him the way she did, and what does their interaction in the street at a climactic moment tell us about how they view their earlier confrontation? How did Marlon perceive that confrontation? Did Lucia forgive him?

7. Late in the novel, Lucia considers how, if she tells her children and grandchildren all her grandmother’s stories, her grandmother will stay alive for two hundred years. We never meet this one-legged, tractor-driving grandmother—why does she matter in the story? Does her almost-presence have any relevance to Lucia and Rachel’s relationship?

8. Each of these characters deals with fear in different ways. How does Lucia respond to fear? Rachel? Margaret? Evan? Do you see any pattern in terms of their responses—does gender matter, for instance? Or age?

9. What do you think about where Lucia decided to set the boundaries for her relationship with Rachel? Do you agree with Lucia’s choices? Do you think Rachel understands Lucia’s reasons for agreeing to Margaret’s demands, and does it matter if Rachel understands at the moment—or only when she is grown?

10. Does the version of Montgomery, Alabama, you encountered in these pages meet your expectations? In what ways does this glimpse of the South match your ideas or differ from them? How would you have felt differently about this story if it had been set in Boston or Detroit? What did the setting bring to your read?

11. When Phillips set out to write this novel, she settled on this particular time period in part because the Equal Rights Amendment was making news. Readers meet Lucia in 1979, when the early enthusiasm for the ERA has faltered, and it’s become clear that much of America is not eager to declare that, “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” A couple of months after the novel ends, the ERA officially fails. How does it matter to Lucia and Rachel’s story that it takes place during this sort of limbo between hope for official equality and a realization that the fight for equality won’t have any clear resolution?

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