Happens Every Day: An All-Too-True Story by Isabel Gillies offers a naked rendering of the end of a marriage. Gillies’ narrative rivets the reader with the bald and bold details of the most intimate of relationships. Rather than the quiet demeanor and dignity often imitated when women try to emulate modern icons like Jackie O or Marlene Dietrich, Gillies puts it all out there – the good, the bad and the very, very ugly. “I wish,” she writes, “I were the confident, cool person who can handle women from the past in an unruffled, grown-up, sophisticated way, but sadly I’m not.” Luckily for the reader, she’s not. Her lack of pretense is the very element that draws the reader in and allows us to be right there with her emotionally.
Because she is an actress (she plays Detective Stabler’s wife in Law & Order: SVU), her writing seems to embody all the fear and anger and sadness and love that she felt as she experienced the decay of her relationship with her husband. Gillies herself recounts how she had just finished teaching an acting class and that she was a live wire on the afternoon she finally confronted her husband with her suspicions of his affair. Her live wire is live from beginning to end – from the beautiful compelling start of their love to the confusing and confounding finish. Her way of sharing her story makes you feel she trusts you with all this scary and unattractive yet honest and natural emotion. My jaw dropped, as she sat straight up when, discussing her dismay that her husband suddenly started smoking, a colleague suggested that when people start smoking “it’s usually because they are smoking with someone else.” The reader empathizes with her as the narrative drive shifts from trying to figure out what is going on to why it’s happening.
She includes how families and parents can be drawn in, even when geographically distant – “I could understand the parents aligning themselves, even if it was misguided, with their children…I was feeling torn in a zillion directions, agreeing and disagreeing with everyone at the same time.” When she recounts how much she long admired her own parents’ marriage and her disappointment in herself, her idealization seems to brush over the fact revealed in the early pages that both Gillies’ and her husband had parents who’d been married more than once and that they both enjoyed “an array of step and half and real siblings.” In sharing how much she relied on her girlfriends, Gillies recounts her dismay her that while they’d thought of everything she could and would say when Gillies goes to corner the other woman, they forgot to consider what she should wear for the encounter. She observes how “love changes chemistry and you can just tell when it’s happening, especially to your husband,” a pretty good rendition of “alienation of affection.” And she relays how her hard-sought insights led to nothing and how her apparently insignificant choices seemed to lead to the irreparable result.
Gillies doesn’t spare herself as she acknowledges how her insecurities might have stifled his love for her. Chagrin about the little things she argued with him about or for which she berated him, she resolved to change. She shares her uncertainty about her intelligence in an academic environment. She sees herself as a silly blond in a sea of witty brunettes. She thoughtlessly throws on her father’s “dark blue L.L. Bean puffy parka” and contrasts her apparel to the cool Marc Jacobs attire of her husband’s mistress. She shares her suspicion that her husband’s witness of the difficult birth of their second child changed how he viewed her. She confides her stupidity that she didn’t try as hard in the “looks department” because she was married and had her babies. And she acknowledges her many mistakes: “The thing is, in life we can’t react truthfully to everything we feel.”
I admired her courage when I finished reading the book (which I did in one sitting). My sense is that the reason her story was so compelling was not that the story itself was so unusual, but that her way of telling her story showed how tragic and hard and wrenching each and every particular story of divorce is. In some ways, Gillies’ tender writing reminded me of Elizabeth Lesser’s in Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. They both accept that life and living is peculiar, mysterious, shifting and often very untidy and out of control. In Gillies’ very unaffected and natural portrayal, you could believe what happened to her could happen to anyone, even you. And like her, even you could survive.