A Woman's Place by Barbara Delinsky
Harper Collins, $22.00, PG-13,ISBN: 0-06-017506-0
*****
A Woman's Place, like Barbara Delinsky's last book, Shades of Grace, is not a traditional romance novel. The relationship between the heroine and the hero is not at the center of the story. Rather, the novel deals with an important issue: the treatment of women - and especially career women - by a judicial system that too often bases its decisions on outmoded and outdated assumptions about women' proper place in society.

This book will tug at your emotions. In turn, I was outraged, saddened, proud, and happy. But I was never uninvolved. Delinsky made me care deeply about the characters, so deeply that at times I was almost afraid to read on because I felt like I was sharing the heroine's pain. This is a truly gripping story.

1 Claire Raphael is the 1990s career woman - in spades. Over the course of a decade, she has created a multi-million dollar business, WickerWise, with several stores, over twenty franchises, and boutiques in some of the best department stores in the country. Like many women entrepreneurs, she began in a small way: buying, refinishing and selling antique wicker furniture. With the help of her CEO Brody Parth, she turned what was a sideline into an extremely successful business, while at the same time juggling her life to be sure that she is an involved mother and a supportive wife.

As the book begins, Claire and her children are about to take off on a trip to visit her dying mother in Cleveland. From there, Claire leaves on a business trip after sending her children home to be with their father. When she returns several days later, she is served with a court order informing her that her husband is suing her for divorce and demanding custody of their two children, Johnny, age nine, and Kiki, age seven. She is ordered to vacate her home immediately, and when she resists, her husband calls the police to escort her from the premises.

Dennis has argued that Claire's commitment to her business and her concern over her mother's illness have led her to be a neglectful mother. His evidence is based on half-truths and downright lies - including the accusation that Claire and Brody are having an affair. But the judge, who has a well-known dislike of career women, accepts Dennis' argument and takes Claire's children away from her.

This, then, is the tale of a woman who has clearly been the primary parent in her children's lives, who has "done it all," being punished by the court system for her very success and being punished by her husband for being more successful than he has been.

Delinsky has chosen to write this book in the first person. This is a very effective stylistic device, because the reader feels Claire's confusion, her despair, her anger, and her frustration. The first person voice also allows direct access to Claire's growing recognition of the flaws in her previous vision of her marriage and her discovery that her feelings for Brody - based as they are on friendship, affection, and respect - are deeper and more meaningful than she had been willing to admit.

Brody is clearly worthy of Claire. He has loved her for a long time, but as Dennis' friend and the children's godfather, he has never sought to threaten the marriage. When the marriage collapses, he is there for Claire, first as a supportive friend, then as a caring love. Their developing romantic involvement provides Claire with the strength to fight for what is right in the face of daunting odds.

A Woman's Place should not be viewed as a novel about divorce as it is experienced by most women. Claire, after all, has resources that most women facing the break-up of their marriages can only dream of. She has the money to find and pay a good lawyer, to hire a detective to support her case, to quickly establish an alternative residence. But the very uniqueness of Claire's position brings home the personal cost of divorce. Delinsky is particularly good at describing the children's response to this upheaval in their lives. By the end of the book, even Dennis has come to acknowledge that he did not fully comprehend the destructive forces he so blithely set loose.

That Claire, with all her resources, still feels helpless and battered by the judicial system speaks volumes about the impersonality and uncaring nature of the courts which must make such important decisions about people's lives. The novel all too clearly describes the shabby methods that some lawyers and their clients will use to win at all cost.

A Woman's Place is a compelling story about a woman who faces the greatest fear of any loving mother, that she might lose her children. It is finally, however, a story with a happy ending which perhaps makes it a romantic novel after all.

--Jean Mason


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