Lies In White Dresses by Sofia Grant – an inspiring tale about female friendship in the Divorce Capital
In her new novel Lies in White Dresses (William Morrow, September, 2019), Sofia Grant chronicles the story of three women who visit a “divorce ranch” in 1950s Reno. This was the site of the little-known “Reno Cure,” in which married women, who couldn’t divorce elsewhere, became residents in Nevada in order to divorce their husbands. It should be noted that although men also went to Reno to seek divorces, the majority of people who did were women.
Grant heard about the phenomenon after a friend casually mentioned the “Reno cure” when her father moved into a Reno retirement home. When Grant’s step daughter was accepted into University of Reno shortly afterwards, Grant decided to look into the subject further, stating, “I fell in love with Reno and its fascinating history. Though the heyday of Reno’s prominence in the divorce industry was nearing its end in 1952, that seems the perfect year to explore the themes and characters I wanted to build my story around. Specifically I wanted to write about the challenges and joys of long-term marriage — as well as sexuality, disability, friendship — in an era when attitudes were far more restrictive.”
Grant has performed thorough research for her book by combing through sources at the University of Reno library, Sparks Heritage Museum and Nevada Historical Society. However, the richest sources of inspiration were the personal histories, photographs and other ephemera found online, supplied by descendants, enthusiasts and amateur historians. The amassed material was so substantial that she decided to create a Pinterest board of the images discovered.
Grant used this historical recourse to delve into how Reno became a haven for divorces. In the 1950s, two factors could make getting a divorce difficult, depending on where you lived: acceptable grounds and the length of residency required by the state. Reno offered remarkably generous grounds that required no proof, and its residency requirement was a mere six months. During the Depression, the city even lowered it to six weeks in order to fill up the city’s coffers. The proprietors of the hotels where the women stayed frequently vouched for the residency requirement, a phenomenon that Grant has incorporated into the story.
In a recent workshop, Grant discussed considerations to make when writing historical fiction. Grant’s view is “that we owe our readers an authentic story, though not always a perfectly accurate one, as long as we share the liberties we have taken in the Author’s Note.” True to form, Grant does this in Lies in White Dresses, where she informs the reader of the creative liberties taken, but also the parts of the book that are actually historically accurate. For instance, Grant clarified that her recounted stories of “Reno cure” women throwing their rings into the Truckee Rivers were verifiably accurate, though thought to be apocryphal for many years.
Grant covers many topics throughout the story, including female friendships, motherhood, and domestic abuse. She also focuses on the challenges that the LGBT community experienced in the 1950s. “The challenges that people in my life have faced have inspired me to explore the history of the American LGBT experience. Like Francie in my novel, I was married to a man who eventually came out as gay, and writing allowed me to explore some of the complex emotions around such a relationship.”
The characters in Lies In White Dresses are fictional, although Grant hopes that she has “honored my friends in my depiction of the LGBT characters in the books, which are inspired by, if not based on, some very special people”.
In her vivid and emotionally evocative tale, Grant depicts the challenges facing women who did not live in a traditional marriage during this era. She also sheds light on a lesser-known grim reality facing the LGBT community in a not-so-distant past. “I think one of the things I learned in the writing of this book is that driving people into hiding an elemental part of themselves has the unintended consequence of forming fiercely protective and generous communities in the shadows. Though little of this research made it into the book, Reno’s LGBT history is a rich one deserving of preservation and celebration.”
About the contributor: Helen Piper is a freelance journalist, and currently working on her first novel. Previously she worked as a lawyer.