Book Talk: *Happens Every Day*, by Isabel Gillies

Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story
Isabel Gillies (Twitter)
Scribner (2009), Hardcover (ISBN 1439110077 / 9781439110072)
Memoir, 272 pages
Source: received secondhand from another blogger
Reason for reading: personal

Opening lines: “One late August afternoon in our new house in Oberlin, Ohio, my husband, Josiah, took it upon himself to wallpaper the bathroom with pictures of our family.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website: Isabel Gillies had a wonderful life—a handsome, intelligent, loving husband who was a professor; two glorious toddlers; a beautiful house in their Midwestern college town; the time and place to express all her ebullience and affection and optimism. Suddenly, the life Isabel had made crumbled. Her husband, Josiah, announced that he was leaving her and their two young sons. “Happens every day,” said a friend. 

Far from a self-pitying diatribe, Happens Every Day reads like an intimate conversation between friends. It is a dizzyingly candid, compulsively readable, ultimately redemptive story about love, marriage, family, heartbreak, and the unexpected turns of a life. On the one hand, reading this book is like watching a train wreck. On the other hand, as Gillies herself says, it is about trying to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness, and loving your life even if it has slipped away.

Comments: The quote above opens Chapter One of Isabel Gillies’ memoir of the end of her marriage. The chapter ends with this line: “Josiah left me and the boys a month later for a new member of the faculty. A female professor in his department hired to teach eighteenth-century English literature.”

Isabel never saw it coming, although she admits that she may have ignored some potential danger signs, such as the knowledge that Josiah had left his first wife – who was pregnant with their child – for someone else (not Isabel). And even when she was forced to see it – when Josiah told her directly, more than once, that he couldn’t be in their marriage anymore – she made every effort to avoid looking. But eventually one has to see what’s really there – and what’s on its way out.

Gillies is frank, forward, and not always particularly self-flattering in her depiction of this extremely difficult time. Happens Every Day was a painful, too-close-for-comfort read for me, because so much of what she describes about the last few months of her first marriage is shockingly similar to what happened in my own (although mine dragged it out a whole lot longer). My first marriage ended nearly a decade ago and I’ve processed it all by now, but there are things about that breakup that I’ll never forget, and the emotions associated with that time can still be stirred up when I’m exposed to reminders. A few particulars about Isabel and Josiah’s situation were especially, and uncomfortably, familiar. I had the sense that at times Isabel was fighting to stay married, period, more than trying to stay married to Josiah specifically; and despite Josiah’s repeated declarations that he “couldn’t do this anymore” and efforts to avoid being around Isabel whenever possible, it took him a while to get around to actually leaving. But he did leave, although I don’t believe that the new faculty member was the only reason why. Having been there myself has not changed my belief that relationships can’t be broken up by a third party unless they were shaky to begin with. I do believe that the third party can be a catalyst that forces one or both members of a couple to see that they really are shaky, but it’s not necessarily what shakes them apart.

These days, very few people are likely to ask me how my first marriage ended, but should it happen, I’m inclined to give them a copy of Happens Every Day – it would give them the framework, and I’d just have to fill in the differences and details. Isabel Gillies’ story is all too true, and all too common – but it’s not all here. A follow-up memoir of her life after divorce, A Year and Six Seconds, is out in August.

Rating: 3.75/5
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