In Sophia Grant’s latest novel, “Lies in White Dresses,” this prolific writer does what keeps her on the best-seller lists; Grant captures an obscure, curious piece of history to use as a base around which she weaves a story of female friendships, mother-daughter relationships and of how one must grow onward and upward despite the deceptions of family expectations and spousal betrayal.
In 1972, divers combing the bed of the Truckee River in Reno, Nevada, recovered over 500 wedding rings. The rings were tangible proof of a Reno custom from the 1940s and 50s, when “taking the Reno Cure” was a euphemism for getting a quick divorce. As early as 1909, Reno had gained notoriety by changing its residency requirements to just six months. By 1952, the timing of Grant’s novel, residency had dropped to a mere six weeks. Luxury hotels had sprung up catering exclusively to those seeking divorce, with hotel managers serving as legal witnesses to the legitimacy of the six-week residencies. Services and ceremonies were developed to encourage women to celebrate passing into new lives. Throwing wedding rings into the Truckee was one such tradition.
Francie Meeker and Vi Carothers have been friends since they were young, married women. Now, with children grown and launched, Francie’s gay husband, Arthur, no longer needs her as his beard, and Vi’s mean husband, Harry, a serial philanderer, wants to unload dead weight. Both women are acutely, painfully puzzled about how their fairy-tale, white dress weddings eventually led to such diminished lives.
Taking the train from San Francisco to Reno, Francie and Vi meet June Samples and her hungry daughter, 4-year old Patty. June does not have the financial cushion that prevents Francie and Vi’s journey from being a complete travesty. Not only are the Samples obviously from a lower social class, June also bears evidence of domestic violence, and she openly worries about how she must quickly find a job in Reno to support her six-week residency, and then beyond.
Francie and Vi immediately offer companionship and relief to June and Patty, but the story is just beginning and, when these well-rounded characters arrive at their hotel, the Holiday Ranch, they meet supporting characters —hotel owner, Mary Swanson, her 12-year-old daughter, Virgie, and a Hollywood B-grade starlet-type, Willy Carroll. Willy’s story demonstrates that divorce wasn’t the only ignoble cure regularly being sought in Reno.
Virgie, who presents as a Nancy Drew wannabe/budding entrepreneur, becomes a dominant narrator, providing amusing and quite contrasting observations of who is doing what, when, where and why. Virgie’s speculative contributions prevent “Lies in White Dresses” from being conventional to the point of boring.
Then, Vi Carothers drowns in the Truckee River, late at night and alone. From this point forward, questions by police and Virgie’s own furtive investigations result in delicious unpredictability. What the police think and how they approach the various women of the novel is a particularly adept way for Grant to portray the cultural mores of mid-20th century, Western, middle-class America.
When Vi’s son, Charlie, arrives in Reno to clean up the mystery of her death, the story begins to suggest answers to questions that aren’t yet fully formed, with the gender-based restrictions and limited options for women of the 1950s leading to provocative discussions and dramatic reveals.
Francie’s Arthur and daughter Alice also come to Reno to help Francie deal with Vi’s death. While Arthur has always been kind to Francie, she no longer can tolerate being dismissed and disregarded; she hadn’t quite realized just how important Vi had been to her; she hadn’t been fully in touch with the nature of the affection she felt for Vi. Francie is consumed by the depth of her own grief.
Meanwhile, June’s husband stalks her, threatening others who interact with a wife and child he realizes are close to escaping him.
He is predictable, a textbook abuser, but June, bolstered by allies, is equally relentless in her drive to achieve some happiness and security for herself and her daughter.
“Lies in White Dresses” reads quickly, with heavy action in the end traveling faster than the evening train that carried bitterly disappointed women to an isolated, small, high desert town packaging itself as a transformative gateway to a next life for those brave enough to embrace the opportunity. Grant’s deft use of a historical lens coupled with redemptive solutions brings this novel of domestic hardship and psychological adversity to a satisfying conclusion.
Carolyn J. Kelly writes and edits technical and business communication in Manhattan, KS.