The Divorce Girl

Readers' Guide

  1. Deborah sees the world both through her own eyes and through her camera. What difference does it make for her to look at people, events, her own responses as if she were taking a photograph?
  2. Do you believe the death of Deborah's brother catalyzed her parents' divorce? What difference might it have made if he had lived?
  3. People under severe stress do strange things, particularly when in the middle of a horrendous divorce. Consider some of the actions of Deborah's parents in this light, and discuss what might have been behind such actions (such as the ivory liquid/plants incident, or the knish-baking incident).
  4. From reading about Fatima, what do you think her backstory is? What does the novel suggest about the losses and hardships she suffered? In this light, how do you see Fatima's decision to distance herself from Deborah?
  5. What is Eshe's role in this story? How is she an important mentor to Deborah in unexpected ways?
  6. Some people, after reading about Deborah's father, would suggest he suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism that makes it hard for him to read social cues and understand both people's actions toward him and his own reactions. How do you see his motivations and interactions with others?
  7. Why does Deborah choose to live with her father?
  8. Why do you think Jeanine brushes off the loss of her social work career rather casually? What seems to appeal to her about the new work in her life?
  9. When Deborah suggests to Boy he can be anything he wants in the world, he tells her, "That’s just a pipe dream. I’m signed up long term for the rags-on-the-road life." Why does he believe his options are so limited, and are then indeed that limited?
  10. Liz has traveled all over the world but ends up in 'Jersey, "like I'm never been anywhere," she says. Why is she so satisfied with her life, and what do you think she's found in the store, a home, and "Uncle" Carl?
  11. Roger spends a lot of time reading classics, particularly about women in complex social situations in the 1800s, as well as reading comics and watching TV. How might these function well as his way of coping?
  12. The rabbi doesn't talk about spirituality much, yet he seems to be very focused on working with a difficult congregation and doing all he can to help Deborah. What do you see as his motivation?
  13. How does Mrs. P contradict or reinforce the myth of a Holocaust survivor? Also, why do you think cleaning and cooking are so important to her?
  14. Food is a major theme throughout the book with Deborah's father struggling to sustain his weight loss, Deborah's mother having difficulty getting herself to eat under stress, Mrs. P focused on creating perfect meals at regular intervals, Liz somewhat obsessed with sweets, and other characters motivated by their next meal. How do you see food functioning for various characters as more than just nutrition?
  15. Why do you think Deborah's mother wrote all the letters (and chose to reveal her life), and why do you think Deborah's father hid all the letters?
  16. What is Mark's role -- from start to finish -- in this novel? What gifts does he give Deborah?

The Divorce Girl

Ice Cube Press, 2012. Paperback: 374 pages.  ISBN-10: 1888160667, and ISBN-13: 978-1888160666

Buy a signed copy through Caryn. Available at Ice Cube Press

Scroll down for Reviews, Press, and Readers Guide

Meet Deborah Shapiro, a New Jersey teenage photographer whose parents’ outrageous divorce lands her in the biggest flea market in the free world, a Greek diner with immigration issues, a New York City taxi company, a radical suburban synagogue, a hippie-owned boutique, bowling alleys, beaches, and bagel shops. As her home explodes, a first love, a series of almost-mothers, and a comical collection of eccentric mentors show Deborah how to make art out of a life, and life from the wreckage of a broken home. Join Kansas poet laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg as she explores loss, grief, and bad behavior with humor and imagination. This coming of age story illuminates how a daring heart can turn a broken girl into a woman strong enough to craft a life of art, soul, and beauty.


I just finished reading this book, and I am damn near speechless because I love it so much. I found myself laughing and crying throughout and not wanting it to end. The Divorce Girl is wonderful and soulful. ~Kelley Hunt, international-touring rhythm and blues singer and songwriter

A saavy and generous-hearted book, rich and gritty and wise. There have been many well-intentioned but formulaic takes on what it is to be a child of divorce, but this unique and fearless novel, beautifully written by poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, is fresh and unpredictable, pulsing with its young protagonist’s wit, determination, and courage as she journeys through painful and frightening times, transporting herself by sheer force of will from a shattered world to a world made whole through self-determination and the saving grace of art. ~Patricia Traxler, author of Blood and Forbidden Words

The Divorce Girl itself is.....wickedly, subversively funny. In fact, in its open-minded view of Jewish culture and knowledge of how children ultimately discover the stealth of their parents, I dare say that this is the novel Mordecai Richler would have written had he born a girl. Richler had the Boy Wonder in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; Mirriam-Goldberg has Boy in The Divorce Girl. In case you don’t know, this is as high a praise as I can offer a novelist....This is likely the choicest read you’ll open this year. I loved it. -- Hubert O'Hearn, Herald de Paris

Full of great characters and charm! ~Laura Moriarty, author of The Center of Everything

When her family explodes, Deborah shuts down. Her world shrinks to what she sees through her camera's viewfinder. As she focuses on images she creates, her life emerges, filled with possibilities beyond bruises, beyond self-destruction. Art creates for her a life she could not imagine in any other way. The Divorce Girl is a visionary novel, a powerful story of pain and healing. ~Peggy Shumaker, Alaska State Writer Laureate, and author of Just Breathe Normally

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. ~ Lisa McLendon, Wichita Eagle

The Divorce Girl is as smart and funny as its teenage protagonist, whose struggles to make sense of the chaos into which her family descends will keep you riveted. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg delivers a story that is poignant yet sharp, timeless yet fresh. Her characters come alive on the page, real as our own parents and siblings and assortment of other zany relatives. This is a book that will make you care about them all.  ~ Katherine Towler, author of the Snow Island Trilogy

Divorce can often send children into turmoil. The Divorce Girl is a novel set in the 1970s; Deborah Shapiro copes with her parents splitting in her teenage years by seeing a whole broad stroke of the world and its many curious characters through it all. A coming of age tale with a strong dose of humor all throughout, The Divorce Girl is a must for fiction collections, not to be missed. ~ Midwest Book Review

At the beginning of The Divorce Girl, 15-year-old Deborah confidently asserts, "I knew all about divorce." Beset by challenges, adventures, and difficulties, but always finding transcendence, Mirriam-Goldberg's pitch-perfect narrator grows on the reader while she grows toward the light of her womanhood and her art. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, long a celebrated Kansas poet and nonfiction writer, gives us a winning fictional debut. ~Thomas Fox Averill, Writer-in-residence, Washburn University, is the author of rode, awarded Outstanding Western Novel of 2011.

The Divorce Girl is wonderful and substantive. Not a flash in the pan or a novelty, this book will heal people who have been through similar experiences.  ~Denise Low, Poet Laureate of Kansas 2007-2009, author of Ghost Stories of the New West and Natural Theologies: Essays About Literature of the New Middle West

Beyond being a terrific read, The Divorce Girl teaches us life's important spiritual lessons; that pain can inspire creativity and that art and creativity is the best antidote to despair. Like Dan Savage's life-saving book, It Gets Better, this novel will help children of a difficult divorce see that the light at the end of the tunnel is not always another approaching train. Similarly, the book may inspire divorced and divorcing adults to do better for their children's sake. This is a lot to ask of a novel that we read for pleasure, and the author delivers. ~Harriet Lerner, author of The Marriage Rules and The Dance of Anger

Excerpt: Chapter One

The moment I saw Dad’s car instead of Mom’s in the driveway, I knew it was too late. I had been trying to photograph the falling leaves ever since the school bus had dropped me off at the bottom of our horseshoe-shaped street. But when I spotted that car through the viewfinder, I let the camera fall to my chest and walked quickly, my books heavy in my arms as the future rushed toward me.

As soon I crossed the threshold, I saw Dad just where I expected him – on the living room sofa, waiting. One half of me obediently walked over and sat down beside him, ready to hear whatever bad news had brought him home from work in the middle of the afternoon. The other half of me lifted my new 35 millimeter camera and stepped back to frame the shot, focusing on the heavy drapes behind us, the crisp lines of the plastic-covered cushions, while blurring our faces. When he said, “I have some bad news to tell you,” one part of me nodded as the other snapped the shutter. Yet both parts of me knew that this room, this house, this family, were already turning into something different, just as the black screen of a Polaroid picture loses its blankness for an image.

“Deborah, your mother and I are getting divorced.”

Even though I knew it was coming, I still jumped a little inside. Then I calmed myself by imagining him moving out, like other dads, into a North Jersey apartment. He would come every Saturday to take my little brother, sister, and me bowling or ice-skating. There would be less yelling in the house, and I’d probably end up seeing Dad more.

“I thought that might happen,” I said. That’s when the other me, not so calm about the future, felt suddenly nauseous. I blinked, thinking how strange it was that I was scared.

We stood up, oddly formal with each other, as we spun inside our heads a picture of what life would look like a year from now. There would be alimony checks and phone calls. There’d be bowling alleys, Pop-Tarts for breakfast, Sunday afternoon matinees with popcorn for lunch. We’d visit Dad at his messy little apartment and joke about his inability to cook spaghetti. I’d seen it happen with the neighbors and in the movies on television. I was fifteen years old, and I knew all about divorce.