Normally, I go into a book trusting the author (unless I know in advance there's been some sort of James Frey-esque malfeasance.) I enjoy seeing the world through another person's eyes, even if I may disagree with them, and I want to hear their story as they tell it. Occasionally, a narrator will be so unreliable that I start to doubt them when I'm partway into a book, but that's unusual. This time however, due to a few conversations I'd had just before reading Ms. Gillies's memoir, I went in with a high level of skepticism. She didn't deserve it (and I apologize for my state of mind, as I hate any critique that sounds personal), but it did make for a more interesting reading experience. The conversations weren't about this book in particular, but were about how there are two sides to every story, and made me think throughout the book about what her husband might have been thinking or how he might have differently interpreted the same event.
Isabel and Josiah move to Oberlin, Ohio with their two small boys for Josiah to start working as a professor at Oberlin College. Isabel had formerly been an actress in New York City but had given it up to follow Josiah's career, and she threw herself into her new town and new life with aplomb. Enjoying small town life, she got the boon of being offered to teach a class on acting for the screen, and life seemed perfect. Until it wasn't. A new English professor arrived in town and immediately she and Josiah seemed unusually, inappropriately close, and after quite a few angry denials, Josiah did leave Isabel as he had in fact fallen in love with the other woman. And we readers some along for the roller-coaster of emotions poured out on the page by Isabel, who felt very blindsided and like it was very unfair.
Well, of course its unfair. Who does cheating or a breakup happen to and it's fair? And as to the blindsiding, which seems to increase the hurt and betrayal so much more, well I didn't buy it. In this regard, Ms. Gillies gave us more information about her relationship than she seemed to absorb herself. While discussing their pasts and how they fell in love, she does flippantly refer to a couple of things that probably should have been red flags, but in a dismissive way that shows she believes those were only obvious in hindsight. I disagree. I think the fact that your husband cheated on his first wife and left her should have been a huge red flag. It should have indicated that despite anything he might say about being a changed man, there was a lot to be gained by taking things slow and really seeing if his actions were true to his words, not rushing into the relationship. You can guess which they did.
She also presents their relationship as idyllic, while simultaneously admitting they fought from the very beginning, viciously, and constantly. The fights that were related seemed to show Isabel as being very sensitive and thin-skinned, inclined to take things the wrong way, and Josiah as bitter, unable to communicate at all, and likely to escalate things by knowingly doing exactly things he knew she would hate. After I while I really started to think they probably should have gotten divorced sooner, not later. They were in couples therapy when they'd only been together a short while, when they still should have been in the pink haze phase of new love. And they seem remarkably poorly matched. Isabel seems very high energy, throwing herself headlong into projects, decisions, and relationships without much thought. Josiah seems low-energy, not prepared to deal with high-maintenance at all, the kind of guy who just shuts down when life doesn't go his way, and who impulsively acts out in a childish manner instead of acting like an adult and talking about what is wrong.
While the memoir is raw and emotional and it is a compelling read, in the same way that you can't not look at a car wreck, it is also like a car wreck. A wreck in which both parties are at fault but only ones claims to be. Isabel claims to have just been driving along when she was broadsided by Josiah, when in fact she was texting. It takes two to make a relationship, and while she might claim only one person destroyed this relationship, I disagree. It was doomed from the start, and she was just as much to blame for ignoring all the red flags and warning signs, and jumping in quickly without looking first. In the end, while I did find the book hard to put down and a quick, smooth read, I disliked both the main characters. I also found Isabel's lingering bitterness to be quite a turn-off. After all, you find out on the last page that she's now happily married to the man of her dreams. Yet, she doesn't seem to appreciate that had she and Josiah not divorced, she would not be married to her current husband. (I think she should put the Chicago song "If She Would Have Been Faithful" on repeat until she no longer feels bitter.)
For those who like to feel better about their own lives by reading about the awfulness of others, I'm with you. Schadenfreude is one of my very favorite things. And this book has it in spades, and is well-written and oozes with real, gripping emotions. But be forewarned that you might not enjoy spending so much time with these people.
I bought this book at B&N.