April Read of the Month: “Family Law,” by Gin Phillips


Gin Phillips

Reviewed by Adele Annesi

Family Law, by novelist Gin Phillips, is a work of historical fiction set in Montgomery, Alabama, from 1979 through 1981. Told from the perspectives of young attorney Lucia Gilbert and budding teen Rachel Morris, Family Law explores the course of two female alter egos on the cusp of change and the ways in which women then and now shed essential aspects of themselves in order to succeed.

The story opens in a courtroom where attorney Lucia Gilbert is representing grandparents, who, after their daughter’s death, seek custody of their two-year-old granddaughter from her negligent father. Able to “set a fast pace even in heels,” an essential power accessory of the era, Gilbert stands her ground against a smarmy male defense attorney who thinks nothing of overtly undermining her confidence. While neither the law nor the courtroom is for the faint of heart, Gilbert’s real trial begins when she walks out to the parking lot to find her car vandalized—not the first time she has been threatened or the last.

If the novel’s questions began in the courtroom, more arise in the daily lives it depicts. Who committed this act of vandalism against Lucia? Moreover, why? And there other questions, the pointed queries Lucia asks each of her clients. What do they hope will happen next? What do they want? Having learned early on how to ask questions and listen for answers, Lucia forces her clients to consider these elemental questions, which the novel also poses, if not answers, as the story unfolds.

Presented at times as succinctly as an attorney’s brief, the story has a structure that is less a bookended framework and more the shape of a nautilus whose cylindrical pattern swirls ever inward to the essence of who Lucia Gilbert really is. Yet, this revelation can only occur through another set of probing eyes, those of Rachel Morris, the teenage daughter of a woman unsure whether she wants to divorce her husband or stay with him, ostensibly for her daughter’s benefit.

While Lucia’s part of the story is told in candid third person, Rachel’s perspective is the more open and overtly quirky first-person narrator, the girl Lucia might have been had she not followed her parents’ pattern for her life. For Lucia, it was straight As from grade school on until she exited college as a woman her parents deemed a stranger but whom Lucia recognizes as the only possible outcome of a structured family of faith where form and function often took the place of untidy reality.

Were it up to Lucia, she and Rachel might not have become anything like friends. But Rachel, seeing in Lucia the fearlessness lacking in Rachel’s mother, is drawn to the intrepid young attorney. Yet to say that the two become friends would be to overstate the relationship and underplay the importance of each young woman to the other.

When a direct threat on Lucia’s life occurs while Rachel is visiting, the lives of both Lucia and Rachel are cast into sharp relief against the backdrop of their imperfections and aspirations. Lucia’s audacity makes her want to win at any cost, even that of having the children her husband, Evan, desires. Rachel’s defiance and longing for life to the full makes her desperate to escape the safe but stultifying existence her mother has created even if it propels her toward society’s seamier side.

The strengths of Family Law include its cylindrical but ever-tightening plot and candid portraits of women of the late 1970s and early 1980s as framed by the rigidity of the law and even, at times, faith, the bargain women then and now make by exchanging parts of themselves for success in their professional lives and life in general.

Perhaps an even more valuable aspect of the novel is its thematic exploration of questions women especially ought pointedly to ask themselves, though still seldom do, until they arrive at real answers. What do we hope will happen? What do we want as an outcome? The moment the word “hope” is used, women still tend to instinctually, if not consciously, withdraw, the underlying premise being, who are we to hope for anything when life has handed us what’s already on our plate? If we refuse what’s before us, we may end up with nothing.

A work of upmarket historical fiction, Family Law is especially valuable to women as a study of its plot structure, insights, and canny knack for asking questions and leaving it for those to whom the questions are posed to answer them. Also invaluable is the story’s incandescent conclusion, one that is admonitory in its inevitability and oddly lovely in style and language, with symbolism that, although somewhat less grounded earlier in the work, nonetheless strikes the reader as strangely and otherworldly appropriate for a story that may not belong to the person for whom it originally seemed intended.

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