Tag Archives: Isabel Gillies

Perfection

Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Revival by Julie Metz (Voice, $14.99)

“There is no real perfection, there’ll be no perfect day.”   Pete Ham

“A good place to spend life.   That’s what I would need to find for myself.”   Julie Metz

I honestly thought that I would likely hate this book, based on a couple of synopses that I looked at before deciding to take a leap of faith and purchase it anyway.   This is the nonfiction tale of graphic designer-wife-mother Julie Metz, who is 43 with a five-year-old daughter when her writer-husband suddenly drops dead.   Metz goes through an extended period of mourning and loss before finding out that her husband, while alive, had several affairs with women both close to her and unknown.   The actions appear to be unforgivable and Metz begins to isolate herself with her anger.   She becomes highly dysfunctional and comes close to shutting down.

I feared this was going to be the second coming of Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies, an unpleasant memoir with a lot of whining and anger.   In Happens Every Day Gillies is unable to come to terms with her husband’s suddenly leaving her for someone else (a female former friend), even though her own mother is quoted as stating that Gillies has an overly controlling personality.   Apparently her husband simply escaped.

But Happens Every Day was basically a tale of depression and loss, while Metz – true to the sub-title – learns to revive her life after her shock and period of denial.   When her lawyer brother helps to locate her husband’s e-mail communications with his mistresses, she’s able to analyze what happened and when things happened, and even speaks with some of his women flings.   Eventually, she puts things in context (“Perhaps we all want our secrets to be found out at last…”) and learns to grant her husband Henry a type of forgiveness.

“I see that, having been through a year of loss and change, I will change still more in this next time of my life.”

The telling flows pretty easily.   Metz tends to have a lot of deep thoughts, but she also has an excellent memory and applies it to good use here.   She tells the story of a marriage – in non-chronological order – even if it was a bit unusual.   As Metz made money, Henry worked for years and years on a book about what constitutes great food; it remained incomplete at his death.   Henry had, however, chosen the title for what was to be his literary masterpiece – Perfection.

Metz can also be funny, as in relating the scene where she and her daughter decide to sprinkle some of Henry’s fine ashes (that still contain a few traces of bone and metal) in the backyard.   They do so but mix Henry’s ashes with those of a deceased male cat.   That kind of put Henry in his place!

Metz’ almost photographic memory is jarring when she writes about her sexual relationships, both before and after her marriage.   She seems to feel the need to describe every encounter she’s ever had with a male, and it becomes numbing and weary.   (Metz is clearly highly attractive but she seems to have had a life-long need to be desired by men.)   There are so many sex scenes that one can only wonder what her young daughter Emily will think of all this one day.   Perhaps she will just decide that her mom had a good time in life.

“It was helpful to remember that life could offer flavors other than sour and bitter.”

At the end of this memoir’s 342 pages, Metz has moved herself and her daughter to Brooklyn, she’s found a nice man to live with (one who is kind to her daughter), and is re-energized and hopeful.   She and her mate become domestic partners and she comes to see that this new life may well be a contented one – a “perfect fit.”

This reader had his doubts – serious doubts – about this work but Metz pulls this one out before the screen goes black.   Recommended.

As noted previously, this book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Bird in Hand

Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow Paperbacks, $13.99, 320 pages)

Yeah we were desperate then/ To have each other to hold/ But love is a long, long road.   Tom Petty

bird-in-hand

Full and proper character development appears to be becoming a lost art in fiction, but author Christina Baker Kline does her bit to revive the art in the intriguing novel Bird in Hand.   This is a fine story, extremely well told, of four people, partners in two marriages and very good friends.   We get to know all four characters and hear their stories – from their own perspectives – in this well-constructed tale.

The narrative begins with Alison whose life seems to be virtually perfect until two things happen.   First, she becomes involved in a deadly accident while under the influence and the ramifications of this threaten to tear her world apart.   Second is something that she’s completely unaware of, which is that her husband is having an affair with someone she considered a friend.   Thus, her world changes overnight:  “For Alison, now, the world was a different place, and yet it was strangely the same.   She was present and not present in her own life.”

Kline writes with the same cool, suburban angst filled tone as Richard Ford (Independence Day, The Sportswriter).   There’s a question that is asked in Ford’s writing and in a Talking Heads song:  How did I get here?   “She walked around the silent house and looked at the framed photographs that lined the mantelpiece and cluttered the bookshelves, wondering, Is this really my life?   This collage of frozen moments, frozen in time.”

In Bird in Hand, we also meet Charlie, Alison’s steady if unfaithful husband; Claire, the newly published author and friend of Alison’s; and Ben, Charlie’s successful if somewhat dull and introverted husband.   It’s rare to find a work in which all four characters are so well fleshed out and, yes, real.   Here’s an example in how Alison describes Charlie:  “…as they started talking she realized that there was…  something in his character that she couldn’t  put down.   He wasn’t cocky, and his humor was gentle.   He had a mild confidence, a lack of self-consciousness, an ironic take on the world that wasn’t caustic or bitter.   Despite his social ease, he had a solitary air.”

At one point, Charlie describes Claire in words that could apply to the author’s style in writing this novel.   “She could be formal one moment and irreverent, even crude, the next.”

“Real life, she knew, was just beginning.”

One of the ironies of reading Bird in Hand is that its fictional account of the disintegration of a marriage feels far more true to life than two contemporary nonfiction accounts:  How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed by Theo Pauline Nestor and Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies.   I much preferred Nestor’s account but neither narrator seemed as true to me as the character Alison in Kline’s work.

It may be because Kline gives us not just a story, but the motivations that spur on the individuals.   With Alison, it’s disillusionment.   “Nothing about her life at the moment was what she’d envisioned for herself when she got married.”   Alison’s husband Charlie is moved by the feeling that he’s made the wrong choices for himself.   “He was doing this because he could not keep skimming along the surface of his life without one day crashing into something hard and unpleasant…  he was convinced he would get only one chance to feel this kind of passion, to express it, to live.”

And then Kline reveals that motivation, intent, means little or nothing because all humans act with incomplete – flawed – knowledge (quoting Alice McDermott):  “As if…  what was actual, as opposed to what was imagined, as opposed to what was believed, made, when you got right down to it, any difference at all.”   So, ultimately, this is an impressive work about real, flawed, individuals doing the best they can at a certain point in their existence, making mistakes but ultimately moving forward.   “It was real life, the way things should be, and even as it was happening it felt to Alison like a distant memory, the moment already slipping into the past.”

bird-in-hand-back-cover

A great deal of praise should be bestowed on author Kline for creating characters that adult readers can relate to.   At one point in Bird in Hand, Kline writes of Alison’s experiences as a young woman, “It was a strange and magical feeling.”   Kline has delivered a strange, unique, magical and borderline brilliant story.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review (hardbound) copy was provided by William Morrow.  

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Real life, just beginning…

bird in hand 4

Real life, she knew, was just beginning.

One of the ironies of reading Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline is that its fictional account of the disintegration of a marriage feels far more true to life than two contemporary non-fiction accounts:  How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed by Theo Pauline Nestor and Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies.   Of the two, I much preferred Nestor’s account but neither narrator seemed as true to me as the character Alison in Kline’s novel.

It may be because Kline gives us not just a story, but the motivations that spur on the individuals.   With Alison, it’s disillusionment.   “Nothing about her life at the moment was what she’d envisioned for herself when she got married.”   Alison’s husband Charlie is moved by the feeling that he’s made the wrong choices for himself.   “He was doing this because he could not keep skimming along the surface of his life without one day crashing into something hard and unpleasant…  he was convinced he would get only one chance to feel this kind of passion, to express it, to live.”

And then Kline reveals to us that motivation, intent, means little or nothing because all humans on this planet act with incomplete – and flawed – knowledge (quoting Alice McDermott):   “As if…  what was actual, as opposed to what was imagined, as opposed to what was believed, made, when you got right down to it, any difference at all.”   So, ultimately, this is an impressive work about real, flawed individuals doing the best they can at a certain point in their existence, making mistakes but ultimately moving forward.   “It was real life, the way things should be, and even as it was happening it felt to Alison like a distant memory, the moment already slipping into the past.”

A great deal of praise should be bestowed on author Kline for creating characters that adult readers can relate to.   At one point in Bird in Hand, Kline writes of Alison’s experiences as a young woman, “It was a strange and magical feeling.”   Kline has delivered a strange, unique, magical and borderline brilliant story.

Highly recommended!

Thank you to William Morrow for the review copy.

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Court and Spark: Sleeping Alone

How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over by Theo Pauline Nestor

Intelligent.   That’s the first word that comes to mind in describing this “all-too-true story” of a woman who unexpectedly finds,  in a single day, that her marriage has fallen apart.   Does this sound like the premise of Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies?   Yes, it is virtually the exact same story but better told, and written from the narrator’s perspective.

In Happens… Gillies comes off as spoiled, narcissistic, whiny, self-pitying and tragically self-centered.   In Nestor’s account, as noted by a fellow author (David Shields), there’s “not an ounce of self-pity.”   Gillies claimed to have a prosperous and almost-perfect life before the divorce.   Nestor, while married, was just getting by; married to a man with a significant – and previously secret – gambling problem.   One of the keys of Nestor’s successful telling of her own story is that she never attempts to come off as special.   She’s “alive as you or me,” in the words of Bob Dylan.

Because the author does not put on airs, we do wish to follow her and find out what happens to her and her two daughters in the coming months (the book appears to cover about a year post-divorce).   In this memoir, Nestor adds and well summarizes some basic but essential research on the stages of divorce, and on the impact of divorce on children.   Because Nestor’s parents were divorced with horrible consequences (one of her sisters was removed from the household), she takes to heart the potential for future impact on her own children.

To this reader the telling had one flaw…   Nestor may have been a bit too honest when she tells us about the re-cycling of a former boyfriend to comfort her after her separation from her husband.   Yes, she actually refers to him as her “boyfriend” – which seems like a Victorian-era term now – while telling us more than I’m sure we wanted to know about their love life.   Naturally, this rebound relationship with an old flame does not pan out…   How, exactly, was this not predictable?

But in the end all is well as it ends well.   If Nestor does not turn into a happier person after her divorce, she does see herself as a far more real – and accepting – person.   Which is quite good news and intelligently told by a woman who as a young girl “memorized all the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark (album).”   In the end, she and the reader re-learn a basic lesson about life…   It goes on.How to sleep 4

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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(It) Happens Every Day

“I remember that my life was perfect.   It felt so perfect that I thought something was bound to go wrong…   But then I suddenly knew something was bound to go wrong.   And it did.”   With these Joan Didion-like cool and analytical words, the actress Isabel Gillies proceeds to tell the true tale of her unexpected divorce.   Like Didion’s works, the book starts off slowly but with an air of great promise.   Unfortunately, the author begins the journey in first gear and never leaves it.

Perhaps more importantly, Gillies fails to come off as someone likeable; certainly not the type of person we would like to have tea with.   Late in the book Gillies quotes her own mother as a critic of her self-absorption, her complaining, her belief that the world revolves around her.   Indeed, and this probably had more than a bit to do with the divorce that her husband sought and was granted.

Another weakness is that we’re told only one side of the story by a clearly biased source.   Perhaps if the second half had been written by her ex-husband, we might have had the opportunity to learn something from the reading.

As it is, there’s not much to see here, so move along.   No great lessons, no inspirations.   We simply, in the words of Bob Dylan, see life and life only.   Which is exactly why, when Gillies divulged the dramatic news of her impending divorce to a supposed friend, this person responded, “(It) happens every day.”

Scribner, $25.00, 259 pages

Joseph Arellano  

A copy of the book was purchased by the reviewer.

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   happenseveryday_200

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