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'Happens Every Day': A Marriage's Abrupt Ending

I swear to you, this really happened: Two weeks ago, I was sitting around on a Saturday night, just me and the dog. I didn't feel like reading any of the books I was supposed to be reading, so I began rooting through my pile of new review books. One slim volume caught my eye, initially, because of its title: Happens Every Day, a memoir by Isabel Gillies. "What happens every day?" I wondered. And, so I started reading. I couldn't put the book down and by the time my husband came home late that night from a business trip, I'd finished it. I grunted, "Welcome home," and went up to bed, drained.

The next morning over breakfast, my husband looked up from the newspapers and announced, "I finished a whole book last night."

"So did I!" I said. You see the punch line coming: He'd picked up Gillies' memoir from the table where I'd left it and he couldn't put it down either.

Maybe it's a bit ominous that we both were transfixed by this account of a marriage abruptly falling apart, although certainly we bonded all that morning by trying to figure out why Gillies' memoir is so disarming, especially given that she's not a writer. But therein lies her charm. When Gillies, for instance, starts reminiscing about the restored Victorian house she and her husband and her two little boys lived in in Ohio and then just gives up after a few sentences and says: "I will never be able to write how great it was," you smile. You're on her side.

That amateurish snort of frustration with words not only gives Gillies' story the ring of truth, but it also ironically conveys what a polished description might not: that this was one fantastic house! Similarly, as Gillies tackles her main subject — the sudden disintegration of her marriage — you feel, as a reader, as though you're sitting with a good friend over a pitcher of margaritas, listening to her, tearfully, digressively, even ditzily describe how her husband — whom she knew since they were both children spending summers on an island in Maine — turned into a pod person practically overnight. I'll fess up to the fact that Gillies' beauty — she was on the cover of Seventeen Magazine, and she had a couple of dates with Mick Jagger — adds a pinch of schadenfreude here for the rest of us mortals. Even beautiful people get dumped! And, it's a double bonus that this whole sad story takes place within the fenced-in groves of academe and that Gillies then-husband is a professor poet (think "Heathcliff with an earring," she tells us). It's always fascinating to read about academics acting on their ids rather than their intellects.

The gist of Gillies' tale is this: her husband, whom she calls here by the pseudonym "Josiah," wins the academic jackpot: a tenured teaching position at Oberlin College. (Gillies, by the way, offers very funny, outsider takes on the preciousness of artsy colleges like Oberlin, describing it as a school where all the students "play an instrument well" and "know how to address [transgendered people].") Gillies gave up her acting job in New York and the young family decamped to Ohio where, after a year, they bought that great house. Within one month of moving in, Josiah fell head over heels for a woman Gillies calls "Sylvia," the "new hire" in his department, a half-French, Audrey Hepburn look-alike whom Gillies had befriended. Another entrancing aspect of this painful story, as Gillies tells it, is that Josiah refuses to discuss his obvious infatuation with Sylvia. This is a man who's a poet, whose brilliant mind one friend likened to "a cathedral" and, yet, in this crucial situation where his marriage and family are at stake, he acts like 90 percent of the guys out there and won't talk about his feelings. Gillies, of course, desperately wants a story to explain why her life is upended. Finally, months after they separate, he calls Gillies and announces that he and Sylvia are, indeed, a couple.

I know we're only getting one side of the break-up here, but unless she's a much more manipulative writer than I'm giving her credit for, Gillies comes off as a genuinely peppy, uncomplicated woman. She even admits that she doesn't "really like poetry . . . [because she] just [doesn't] get it," which, obviously, might have created problems with Josiah the bard. For those readers who've endured similar seismic shifts of the heart, Happens Every Day will offer the comfort of solidarity. For the rest of us who've been, so far, spared, it makes for compulsive and, frankly, chilling late-night reading.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.