The summer after her graduation from Mount Holyoke College, Susannah Reed returned home with dreams of reading and practicing law with her childhood sweetheart, Johnny Couseau. As she was walking home from Johnny's house one day after caring for his family's animals while they were away, Susannah was brutally assaulted both physically and sexually by a mentally deranged neighbor, leaving her near death. Her ultra-religious father insisted that she must be married to her attacker immediately to avoid being branded a "ruined" woman by the community, but in spite of her injuries, she manages to resist throughout the ceremony. Fortunately, her brother-in-law, a kind doctor, took Susannah to his infirmary where he and her sister kept her safe through her long recovery. When Johnny returned home, he was still willing to marry Susannah just as they had planned for most of their lives, but getting her marriage to her rapist declared invalid turned out to be a long drawn out process. In the meantime, Susannah discovers that she is pregnant, and while Johnny is also willing to accept and raise the child as his own, he really wants a traditional wife and not one who insists on becoming a lawyer. When her annulment case is finally heard in court, the judge refuses to grant it, leaving Susannah and her baby in grave danger from her attacker. Everyone agrees that it would probably be best for her to leave New York, so she travels to Chicago to live with her brother and his wife.
With Illinois being one of only a few states that allow women to practice law, Susannah arrives excited about her prospects. She immediately makes contact with a female lawyer who recommends a law firm where Susannah can obtain an internship to study law. With the love and support of her brother and sister-in-law, she begins her arduous journey to becoming a lawyer, and meets their friend, Ted Nelson, who also happens to work in the firm where Suannah is studying. Susannah and Ted connect on a level she never did with Johnny, and he seems to be supportive of her career choice, helping and mentoring her along the way. When her annulment finally comes through, Susannah must make a difficult decision between the two men in her life, and when she at last becomes licensed to practice law, she faces a great deal of hostility from her male counterparts. But Susannah has always been a fighter, so she carves a niche for herself, earning the respect of the legal community, while still pursuing her elusive dream of someday being able to keep alive her passion for the law while having a husband and family.
Susannah, A Lawyer: From Tragedy to Triumph was a very interesting read even though it wasn't quite what I was expecting. I received a copy for review from the author's publicist, who had made a request for reviews on the GoodReads Historical Romance Discussion Group of which I am a member. I had volunteered, because the synopsis interested me, and I thought that it was either a historical romance or a historical novel in which romance was a strong element. In reality, the book is historical women's fiction with the romance (if it could even be called that) comprising probably less than ten percent of the story. I mention this only because I was about 1/3 of the way into the book before I finally realized this, and had experienced some disappointment up to that point. After my little epiphany, I was able to appreciate and generally enjoy the rest of the book for what it was, since I was no longer expecting things that I would likely not get.
Susannah is written in first-person perspective and focuses very narrowly on the main character of Susannah and her struggles in becoming a lawyer in an era when female attorneys were extremely few and those who did exist tended to encounter a great deal of prejudice and hostility from the public and their male counterparts. I've always had an interest in historical figures who were able to break gender (or other) barriers, so the subject matter was quite intriguing. Unlike some of my fellow readers, I am not anti-first-person and up to this point have never had a problem with reading that point-of-view. I also thought that first-person was appropriate for the topic of the book, but I admittedly had many moments when I really craved insights into the other character's thoughts and feelings. Susannah is very much the centerpiece of the narrative with the secondary characters merely orbiting on the periphery. Her relationships to them, whether it be her beau, family, friends, or colleagues are only touched upon very lightly, and in most cases briefly, which left me rather frustrated at times. One example is that Susannah's beau, Ted, is nothing but sweet and supportive throughout the entire story until one brief lapse at the very end where he becomes extremely upset and says some mean things to her that seemed completely out of character for him. Even though he later apologized and the author tries to explain his behavior, I really would have liked to know what Ted was thinking at that moment. I was also rather baffled by how Susannah and her siblings could have such ultra-conservative, ultra-religious parents, but be more liberal-minded themselves. Not that this is impossible, but I wanted to know more about that. Additionally, one of Susannah's colleagues at the firm had mentored her in a very congenial way, but then when she becomes a full-fledged attorney, he starts acting schizophrenic, skipping back and forth between saying and doing ugly things to her and being friendly. Again, his behavior is explained away by a serious illness that caused him to drink heavily to control the pain, and while I could buy that, I found myself wanting to know what he really thought of her. There were many moments like these throughout the narrative where I simply wanted to know more. There are also frequent moments when Susannah veers off into a quick present-tense commentary of the situation at hand, which I thought interrupted the flow of the narrative and seemed rather unnecessary since it's all from her perspective anyway.
Between blazing trails where few of her gender had gone before and surviving a brutal attack against her, Susannah was a strong woman who I could admire. She was very determined, never taking "no" for an answer; she found a way to effectively balance motherhood and her career; and she was an incredibly intelligent woman who proved herself to be as competent, if not more so, at law than her male colleagues. For these reasons alone, I couldn't help but like her. One complaint I have about her character though is that her reasons for becoming a lawyer seemed unfocused and dependent on the circumstances. The reader isn't really given much insight into what prompted the beginnings of her journey when she was still a young girl in boarding school. Sometimes she seemed to be a feminist who was looking to break the glass ceiling. Other times she asserted that she was so intelligent, she needed the intellectual stimulation and just couldn't bear the thought of the mundane life that most women of the era led. Still other times it was a desire to help people and make sure that justice was served, a view-point that was brought about in large part because of the attack. While all of these are certainly valid reasons, they just didn't quite come together for me in a cohesive way. Also, perhaps it is just the romantic in me, but I couldn't help but be a little frustrated with Susannah for the way she kept putting off Ted's marriage proposals. To me he seemed like an absolutely wonderful guy (except for that one lapse I mentioned earlier) and perfect for Susannah, since he didn't see her as a "ruined" woman because of the rape, was an attentive father-figure to her daughter, and out of all the men around her, was probably the most supportive of her career choice. Yet, Susannah often seemed impervious to his repeated proposals and declarations of love and admiration, and rather distrustful of him as well. I was pretty annoyed when she told him to find a solution to the issue of balancing a family with her career or she wouldn't even consider marriage. I just felt like if she truly cared for him, she would have communicated with him and tried to find a solution together instead of giving him an ultimatum. (In fact, it seemed like she had some personal communication issues in general, because even though she had known her first beau, Johnny, since childhood, she still didn't really know his true feelings about her studying law.) In the end, I couldn't help but wonder if Susannah ever would have accepted and married Ted if she hadn't accidentally found out about birth control from a client.
One other issue I had with Susannah and the characters in general was the lack of emotional development. If I had been in Susannah's shoes and been both physically and sexually assaulted to the point of near death, forced to marry my rapist and then found out I was carrying his child, I would have been utterly traumatized. While this was all certainly upsetting to her and I'm not advocating that she should have been a basket case, I just didn't feel like the whole experience carried the weight that it should have. Susannah spends the months following the attack dealing with all the repercussions in a fairly matter-of-fact way, and once she gets to Chicago and begins studying the law, it nearly seems to have been all but forgotten except for her waiting and hoping for an annulment, and one small bit later in the story where she is asked to defend a man accused of rape. The only thing that she ever truly seemed passionate about was the law. I could tell that she cared about, first Johnny, and then later, Ted, and that she was a good and loving mother to her daughter, Bertha, but I never sensed the deep level of feelings for them that she had for the law. Granted her passion for the law made her a great lawyer (I would certainly want to have her on my legal team if I were trouble), but in my opinion, she should have shown at least equal passion for her loved ones. Most of the time, I simply felt rather bereft of an emotional connection, not just to Susannah, but all the characters. A couple of small things that I think could have remedied this would have been more attention to the details of facial expressions and gestures and warming up the rather stilted, formal dialog. In my opinion, these simple changes would have added a great deal to the story.
As a kid, I used to be a big fan of courtroom dramas on TV, and really enjoyed shows like Perry Mason and Matlock. While some people dread being called for jury duty, I can honestly say that the one time I served on a jury, I found it to be an utterly fascinating experience that thoroughly engaged my intellect. This is the area where the author truly shines and shows her own passion and expertise as a law professional. I absolutely loved reading the courtroom scenes. They were very compelling and full of suspense, as Susannah figures out how best to defend her clients. She really throws herself into the fray as she cross-examines witnesses, combats the prosecutor's phony witnesses, makes closing arguments, and does all the things that a trial lawyer would do. It was in these moments that I was transported into another world and really felt like I was there witnessing everything as it happened. I can, without a doubt, say that these scenes warrant an A+ from me.
Susannah also has a very interesting dichotomy between feminism and religion. Depending on the reader's religious persuasion, it could be a little strange to think of the two in the same sphere. I personally believe that they can co-exist peacefully with the right balance, and in my opinion, Susannah did a pretty good job of attaining that balance. The feminist overtones in the story aren't completely overpowering, but they are very strong. I realize that the environment was pretty hostile for women who wanted to work in professional careers in the Victorian age, but there were a few moments where I felt that the author was grandstanding just a bit by engaging in some rather extreme stereotyping. While I do have some feminist sensibilities, I do not consider myself to be a true feminist. In fact, I have chosen to remain in the "women's sphere" even in this modern age, so there were certain parts that didn't really resonate with me on a personal level. As to the religious aspects, they seemed to hold almost equal weight. While I wouldn't necessarily call this an inspirational story (at least it isn't like any inspirational I've read before), it is obvious that Susannah is a woman of faith. She lives with her brother who is an Episcopal priest, attends church regularly and frequently prays to Jesus for help. Except for the way her father (who was also a priest) and mother behaved at the beginning of the story which I believe was meant to appall the reader anyway, there is no religious agenda, only gentle reminders that Susannah's faith is an important part of her day-to-day life. If not quite an inspirational, it is a "clean" book in my opinion. It has no sex, the only violence is either not particularly detailed or takes place off-canvas, and there are only a couple of objectionable words that are used a handful of times, so I feel it would be an appropriate book for teenagers and more sensitive readers.
While it may seems that I have had a number of criticisms of this book and there were admittedly some things I thought could have been better, I did for the most part enjoy reading Susannah in spite of any issues I might have had. It held my attention and kept me reading which of course are two of the most desirable traits of a novel. I also really liked the underlying message that even difficult circumstances like rape can turn into something wonderful, because without that tragic event in Susannah's life, she might never have moved to Chicago, realized her dream of practicing law and found the perfect mate. For a first effort, I thought it was well-done overall. Ms. Rymer shows definite potential as a novelist, and if she chooses to write more books in the future, I would welcome the opportunity to read them.
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