Married in Vegas? Nah, Divorced in Reno

Updated: Feb 27

Ward hasn’t lived in Reno, Nevada for nearly 50 years, but he remembers it like it was yesterday. And how could he not? In Better Luck Next Time, Ward spent his time there working on a dude ranch catering to women seeking divorce during a time when divorce was illegal in most states. He was bound to collect some good stories.

One of his better stories involves his escapades with Nina and Emily during their visit at The Flying Leap ranch in 1938. Nina is a regular client of the ranch and is back for her third divorce. An heiress and amateur pilot, her wild child personality is the complete opposite of Emily’s, whose craziest moment was when she decided to drive herself from San Francisco to Reno to leave her husband. Like the other clients, both women are there for a six week stay of pampering while waiting to become Reno “residents.” After that, a quick divorce and back to their respective homes they’ll go. While awaiting residency status, Nina teaches Emily how to loosen up and Emily teaches Nina that responsibility isn’t always a bad thing.

With most visitors, 24 year old Ward serves as a helping hand who isn’t bad to look at, being described as “Cary Grant in cowboy boots.” Nina and Emily take a special liking to him, and the duo soon turns into a trio. Reno and The Flying Leap serve as their playground, with Nina often taking charge. Before long, Emily starts to notice that Ward is more than just a handsome cowboy and takes their relationship to the next level. The blissful bubble of Reno pops when Emily’s teenage daughter arrives and reality interjects. The family Emily has built at the ranch with Nina and Ward must now contend with the family she left in San Francisco, and there’s no telling which will win.

Unlike some of the more recent books I’ve read, I happened to stumble across Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson. It wasn’t a recommendation by a friend or glanced on Facebook, and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to pick it up. Historical fiction is my favorite genre right now (subject to change at any moment) and Better Luck Next Time is written unlike anything I’ve ever read. Most of the historical fiction I’ve read flashes back and forth between past and present, but Better Luck Next Time is written like a grandfather telling a story, and Julia Claiborne Johnson absolutely nails it.

Considering she’s not a 74 year old man, she does a wonderful job creating one. Ward’s vernacular is spot on, and it felt exactly like I was listening to my own grandpa tell me a story from when he was young. Johnson adds the smallest of details to make it feel this way. Several times throughout the book, Ward goes off on a tangent and then reels himself back in, apologizing to his invisible audience and, seemingly, the readers. This is probably pretty familiar behavior for anyone who has gotten to hear stories from those reminiscing on their youth and creates a more intimate relationship between Ward and the reader.

The balancing act between Nina and Emily’s personalities was also a job well done on Johnson’s part. Nina’s craziness brought out the best in Emily, and Emily kept Nina from flying away with her crazy ideas. By the end of the book, they had fallen into a better rhythm and were meeting more in the middle rather than opposite ends of the wild child spectrum. The journey to this more balanced friendship is fun and heartfelt, especially with all of the shenanigans these characters get into.

I’d recommend Better Luck Next Time to those looking for a heartfelt read, or maybe just need a nostalgic story from a grandparent, sans the grandparent, and I look forward to reading more from Julia Claiborne Johnson.

Casey Larsen is an avid reader, but if you ask her what her favorite book is, you will likely get a different answer every time. She currently works part time in human resources and is pursuing a degree in English with a concentration in Literature. She hopes to one day work at a publishing house, helping future writers fulfill their dreams of becoming published authors. Between working and studying, she loves spending time with her friends, binging Netflix, and cuddling with her black lab puppy, Loki.

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