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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.