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Read any good books lately?: Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies

I bought this book based on a review by Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air a couple of weeks ago. For what it’s worth, Maureen was wrong about her review in many respects but she’s right about its readability. I can’t put it down.

Happens Every Day is a memoir by Isabel Gillies of the time she spent in Oberlin, Ohio with her husband, a newly appointed professor of English. It details the breakup of her marriage that occurs when her husband, called Josiah in the book but in real life DeSales Harrison, leaves her for a colleague.

Gillies is intimate and unsparing in her story telling. Ironically, she is especially hard on herself. One gets the impression that Gillies feels life very intensely. She is passionate, stormy, open, friendly, unabashedly liberal, self-deprecating and keeps none of these feelings to herself. Maybe it has to do with the fact that she is a professional actress who has had a recurring role on one of Law and Order’s shows, as well as movies. And maybe those are the qualities that drew Josiah to her in the first place.

They had a tempestuous, passionate love affair and then marriage that produced two boys, who are toddlers when the story begins. When it comes to marrying Josiah, she should have known better, and she confesses as much in the book: Josiah left his first wife when she was pregnant to pursue an affair with another woman (not Gillies). A year after the birth of their first son, Isabel notices that Josiah starts wandering the house with a book in his hands and rarely looks up after that.

But the thing I find fascinating about this book is Gillies sharp critique of Oberlin and its insular academic community. It begins to feel like some kind of George Sands, Franz Liszt travelling commune after awhile. Everyone is smart. Everyone is seeking some kind of self-actualization. Everyone is incredibly immature in the way they trample on the feelings of those not in the group. There’s a subtle mockery of Gillies by the academic friends and colleagues of her husband. She doesn’t quite measure up. She gets excluded. Her family pedigree may say DAR but it doesn’t come on a parchment from Princeton. Therefore, she is expendable. At the end, she constructs a perfect metaphor for the faculty looking down on her that forces her to reclaim her dignity.

Now, Gillies doesn’t quite come out and say all of this but that is the beauty of this book. There is a point in the story where you get the impression that she’s thinking. “Am I crazy to be thinking the whole town is turning against me here?” Um, no, Isabel, you weren’t crazy. Sure, there is a certain amount of group personality going on where everyone else identifies with a sort of trial by fire in graduate school that the rest of us can only observe. But the way Gillies relates the story, one can only conclude that she was deemed an inconvenient woman by her husband’s inner circle and was subsequently dumped by all of them.

At points during the story, I want to shake this girl and slap her for some of the dumbass ways she handled things. She was entirely too willing to take the blame for Josiah’s early reticence, followed by his open contempt. I suspect that the truth is that Josiah, the poetry expert, knows infatuation very well but hasn’t got a clue what real love is about.

It’s amusing that this book will get widely read while few people are going to read the dry, intellectual tomes on 20th century poetry and 17th century literature that are the obsession of the nattily attired English Department at Oberlin. The profs seriously underestimated Gillies. She saw through it all and has written a book that anyone can understand.  Yeah, Gillies probably could have used an editor but the truth is that Gillies is a natural, gifted writer.  That’s what makes the story so compelling.  It’s not just the breakup of a marriage.  It’s Gillies’ keen perception of what is really going on.  She doesn’t miss a thing.

In the end, everyone gets what they wanted. Josiah gets his Audrey Hepburn, Oberlin gets rid of the tempest in their teapot and Isabel moves on- very well.

Success is the best revenge.

31 Responses

  1. One of my closest friends graduated from Oberlin. I’ll have to tell her about this book. It sounds interesting. Back in the ’60s, there were tons of Oberlin grads in Cambridge for some reason and they kept in touch with each other so I met a lot of them. They were pretty down to earth, so I guess the snobbery of the faculty didn’t rub off.

  2. BB: That’s the funny thing about Oberlin. Gillies suggests that the “down to earthness” is cultivated. It’s amazing, She is spot on in her descriptions. Even her over the top embrace of modern motherhood is ridiculous and she knows it. But when you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to see how contrived it all is.

  3. Interesting. Well, my friend’s “down to earthness” is definitely genuine. She’s just a midwesterner like me. I’m having dinner with her this week, and I’ll definitely tell her about the book.

  4. I put it in my Amazon shopping cart, but I’m trying to cut back on spending money on books. I might try to reserve it at the library. I think I’d like it too. I grew up in an academic family, but my dad taught at a state school, so it probably wasn’t quite so insular.

    • What did he teach?

      • English lit.

        • I suspect things have changed significantly since your dad was an English prof. I think it has to do with the nature of the tenure game and the intensity of the scholarship. I see the same kind of thing at work in the labs. There is something that happens to people who go through graduate school. You’re probably familiar with it although you’re a non-traditional graduate student. I think when it comes to academia it’s even worse. Or maybe it was just that Oberlin is a really tiny town and all of the relationships get incestuous. It’s inevitable. I dunno. I could easily see this happening. Very few of the faculty are locals. They’re all from somewhere bigger and brighter. Now they’re plopped down in the middle of nowhere and they have no one but each other to relate to. Plus, it’s Oberlin, which has an identity all its own. It’s not just a college. It’s an artsy college with lots of musicians. It’s got a good reputation. Am I making sense? Maybe it wouldn’t be like that at a state university or college.

          • Oh no, I heard plenty about office politics from my dad. But at state universities there isn’t quite as much pressure to publish or perish.

            But academia is always very cuthroat and there are struggles for funding, etc. It’s nothing new. My dad was in the faculty senate and he used to tell lots of horror stories. He also told me about all these games people play, like in meetings and body language to establish superiority.

            I know what you mean about Oberlin though, and come to think of it my friend has told me some things that resonate with what you’re saying.

            I love reading academic novels because of the politics. I loved New England White, which is about a murder in academia. It was so much fun to read. Lots of backstabbing.

    • BB, I was just going to say something about my KU experience but, I wondered how it matched yours. I think it’s so cool that we lived in the same college town for a while! (even if it was separated by a couple of decades….)

      My experience was with Law Professors. (blinking)

      • KB,

        I was so little that I wouldn’t really know. We moved when I was going into 4th grade and was 8 years old. What I remember is my dad bringing home lots of foreign students, because he taught English as a second language when he was in grad school. I remember some wonderful Japanese student who made origami animals for me. My dad also taught at the Native American school for awhile. I also fondly remember many trips to the Natural History museum and looking dinosaur skeleton and Gen. Custer’s horse (stuffed) and his uniform.

  5. I put the book on reserve at my library. There were already more than 100 holds, but more copies ordered.

  6. Sounds like an excellent book. Definitely right up my ally. Thanks for the review.

  7. This book looks and sounds interestng? Would it be Book Club material for discussion? We have already decided on May’s selection (The Help) but we will need something for June.

    Our only criteria is that one of us has had to have read the book proposed. Let me know if you think this is something a group can discuss as we have done a few memoirs along the way and they have always been well received.

    • To be honest, it borders on Chick Lit, which is so totally not my thing. But the review made it sound interesting and it was.

      • I am going to order solely for myself and if I think my group would be open to it then I will recommend for June. Either way it does sound interesting.

    • Pat: Perhaps you might consider writing some posts on some of the books that have passed through your book club…

  8. My daughter just finished Oberlin. I sent her the suggestion and may take it myself.

  9. Just finished making spaghetti sauce and it smells so good!

  10. Sounds like a good read, rd. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

    I have always been an avid and voracious reader, but honestly have been too caught up in politics to truly read for…gosh…ages. I need to correct that. I miss my books.

    I think the last book I can remember reading was Special Topics In Calamity Physics (it’s a novel, not a physics book!)

    • I take that back. sometime during the GE I did re-read the entire C.J. Cherryh “Foreigner” series. I’m a sci-fi geek, and she’s one of my favorites.

      • C.J. Cherryh — she’s the greatest. I love also her Chanur series. The first book of hers I read was Downbelow Station, a technical writing tour-de-force. I’ve just finished reading for the second time all of Alan Furst’s spy novels, set in the years just before WWII. Hands down the best flavor/context/atmosphere historical novels about WWII written. In an interview Furst said Anthony Powell (Dance to the Music of Time) is his role model.

  11. I hope you all don’t mind being off-topic for just a sec. but I think everybody here would appreciate Joseph Cannon at http://cannonfire.blogspot.com/ today. I just read it and had to recommend. Again, sorry for going off topic. And we now return to our regularly scheduled program.

    • An amazing article to say the least.

      • What I find hilarious is that the fauxgressives are organizing what amounts to their very own “tea parties”. That is just surreal to me. Why not just go to the ones that are already happening? On this one issue, you AGREE with them! I don’t get this whole thing of being afraid to get Republican cooties, I really don’t.

  12. Those of you who like academic novels might like Francine Pose’s “Blue Angel: A Novel.” I loved it –and it rang true for me a former English Lit. grad student who stopped at the M.A. level.

    From Publishers Weekly
    “Trust the iconoclastic Prose to turn conventional received wisdom on such subjects as predatory professors, innocent female students and the necessity for a degree of political correctness on campus on their silly heads. In this astutely observed, often laugh-aloud funny and sometimes touching academic comedy, she proves more skeptic than cynic, with an affection for her central character that is surprisingly warm.”

  13. OT: I love the Confluence but I would really like it if you had more articles about the adventures of Hillary. I know we can catch up with her on the SOS web site and NQ runs frequent stories but I feel like this is her home base and it’s like home has just kind of abandoned her; said good-bye Hillster, Happy Trails, see ya.

    • I second that–the desire to see updates on the Fabulous HC and her new adventures.

  14. In defense of Oberlin College – it was the first college in America to admit both blacks and women.

  15. Those of us who live in Oberlin recognize that Gillies’ account is a very subjective and often wildly inaccurate view of the place.

    “There is a point in the story where you get the impression that she’s thinking. ‘Am I crazy to be thinking the whole town is turning against me here?’ Um, no, Isabel, you weren’t crazy.”

    This is ludicrous. As someone on the faculty who works in the same building as her ex-husband, I had no idea who she was. Most of “the whole town” was completely unaware. We had our own lives to focus on. Her gossipy, self-centered memoir paints a very distorted picture of the college and those of us who teach here. And your notion that “she doesn’t miss a thing” just compounds the error.

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