An Unknown Woman Happens Every Day Book Reviews

There are many things I just can’t write. Notes of appreciation or congratulation are one–they sound stilted and insincere. Books reviews are another. I am an avid reader, and sometimes a voracious one. I’d love to share thoughts about books but beyond assigning them a score in my Goodreads account, I never know what to say. So you can imagine my delight when I read tribe member Donna Connolly’s blog post where she reviews the novel Cutting for Stone using a template for book reviews created by Yorkshire blogger, Shelley Wilson.

The ‘game’, as Shelley calls it, is #FridayBookShare, with the word ‘Friday’ an acronym for sections in the template. I was all set to try it out with a memoir I had picked up at the library. Then something strange happened.

I read a second book, an interlibrary loan that I had ordered solely on the basis of its title. It stunned me with its similarities, in theme and characterization, to the memoir I had just completed.

So, using Shelley’s template for book reviews, I’m going to try to say useful, helpful things about two books that I devoured in a twenty-four hour period; two books where the authors’ honesty left me breathless. The books, in the order I read them, are:

First Line of the Book

Gillies: “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.”

Koller: “The October morning sunlight pours against my reflection in the bathroom mirror of a New York apartment that isn’t mine.”

Oh, my goodness. I hadn’t realized that both first lines are set in a bathroom.

Recruit Fans by Adding the Book Blurb

Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies

“Isabel Gillis had a wonderful life–a handsome, intelligent, loving husband; two glorious toddlers; a beautiful house; the time and place to express all her ebullience and affection and optimism. Suddenly, that life was over. Her husband, Josiah, announced that he was leaving her and their two young sons.

When Josiah took a teaching job at a Midwestern college, Isabel and their sons moved with him from New York City to Ohio, where Isabel taught acting, threw herself into the college community, and delighted in the less-scheduled lives of toddlers raised away from the city. But within a few months, the marriage was over. The life Isabel had made crumbled. “Happens every day,” said a friend.”

An Unknown Woman by Alice Koller

“This is the true story of a courageous journey–a journey inward, undertaken alone, in the middle of winter, thirty miles out to sea. It is the story of Alice Koller, who went to Nantucket to find–Alice Koller. During the course of her extraordinarily brave and honest self-analysis, she found and discarded the deepest source of her profound unhappiness. Alone, she faced all that she had fled throughout the thirty-seven years of her life. Alone, she discovered the beginnings of her own vision and a reason to live.”

Introduce the Main Character Using Only Three Words

Since both books are memoirs, the authors are the main characters. The first thing I do when I start a book is flip to the ‘About the Author’ blurb at the back. I want to see the author’s photo, get a sense of who she or he might be. Do you do that? When I turned to the photo of Isabel Gillies, I was shocked to recognize her. She is the actress who played the role of Detective Elliott Stabler’s wife on the television show, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

Isabel Gillies: loyal, honest, bewildered Happens Every Day and An Unknown Woman book covers

Alice Koller: analytical, honest, lonely

Delightful Design (Add the cover image.)

I didn’t find either of the covers delightful. I’m not a fan of walls of framed family photos, nor of muddy flat greys. If I had relied on the look of the cover, rather than title and theme, I would not have chosen either book.

Audience Appeal (Who would enjoy reading this book?)

Neither book is particularly well written, yet both captivated me.

Alice Koller had her doctorate in philosophy and a long history of failed relationships with men when she took herself off to Nantucket to think and write. She asks deeply philosophical questions about the value of a life and how to recognize one’s own desires as distinct from those imposed by society. There are times when her angst tips into excruciating navel-gazing, but she is so sincere and honest in her efforts to understand herself that An Unknown Woman is, overall, quite inspiring. It took Koller thirteen years to find a publisher. When she did, An Unknown Woman became a cult classic.

Isabel Gillies writes in a chatty, best-friends-having-coffee style. She isn’t anywhere near as reflective as Alice Koller. The magic of Happens Every Day is in Gillies’ ability to have us accompany her on her desperate attempts to hold on to her marriage, even though we know from the beginning that the bus is ready to careen off the cliff.

If you are looking for books that make ample use of metaphor and lyrical, descriptive passages, you’ll want to skip both of these memoirs. However, if you like introspective authors, Alice Koller might fascinate. And if you are interested in what happens to many women when they are in an intimate relationship with a man, consider one or both titles.

Your Favourite Line/Scene

This is my favourite part of the template. Good book reviews share good, thought-provoking quotes.

My favourite lines in Happens Every Day tell the sad story of Isabel’s efforts to maintain her illusion of a perfect life.

“If we saw anyone at all, I could feel them looking at us and marvelling at how lovely it all seemed. I too felt it was a perfect picture and felt lucky that it was mine.”

“I remember slowing down the car unnecessarily so that we would miss the green light and we could sit together for the forty-five seconds of red. I felt desperate for more time and wasn’t getting any. Josiah structured everything in his life so he was around me as little as possible.”

My favourite quotes from An Unknown Woman are the results of Alice’s introspection.

“Turn a pair of eyes on me and instantly I begin looking into them for myself. I seem to believe there is no Me except in other eyes. I am what I see in your eyes, whoever you are.”

“The question has stopped being whether I shall fail or succeed. Now it’s merely whether the thing I’m doing is new or interesting. I can even make mistakes and call them ‘mistakes’ instead of immediately considering them calamities.”

Do you enjoy reading book reviews? Is this template helpful to you? Shall I use it for other book reviews? Please let me know in the comments below. 


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  1. Hi, Karen –
    Brilliant book reviews! You have gone beyond the template and really made it your own. At first, I wasn’t sure of how I would like a ‘simultaneous ‘review of two books…but you made it work perfectly.
    My answer to your parting question is a resounding “yes”!
    I look forward to reading more of your book reviews.
    I just completed my book review for this week and will post it first thing tomorrow.

  2. Thanks so much, Donna. I owe you big time for making me aware of Shelley’s template. I love how easy it to complete and how it let’s me talk about aspects of the book that really interest me.
    I’m looking forward to reading your review tomorrow.

  3. What a great dual book review! That template is a wonderful formula to do book reviews with. I too, tend to just rate the books I read on Goodreads with stars. Not so much because I don’t know what I want to say about the book but rather because I am so afraid of spoiling the book for others by saying too much, giving too much away. I hate running across that myself so my fear is doing it to others.

    Count me in with Donna….yes, please do more reviews using this template. I might just give it a try by using this formula on my Goodreads account to review some of the books I have read.

  4. You’re so right, Susan. Goodreads has the spoilers alert, but my writing is stilted as I try to figure out whether what I’m saying would be considered a spoiler by someone!
    I’m looking forward to doing more reviews in this format. The template is fun and easy to use. You might want to try it on your blog as well as on Goodreads. If you do, Shelley requests that you link to #FridayBookShare.

    1. Great idea for trying it on my blog too. I am thinking about using this format on my YouTube channel as well. Something along the lines of My Favorite Books Reviewed series kind of thing. Only on there it would be done orally on video instead of written on a website. No problem linking it to #FridayBookShare either. I have no trouble giving people the credit they deserve. 🙂
      Only it is Shelley Wilson, not Sarah, right?
      “a template for book reviews created by Yorkshire blogger, Shelley Wilson”
      Just want to be sure I give the proper credit so I’m asking. 🙂

      1. Whoops, that was my tired brain again. I’ve used the magic of WordPress to edit my previous comment so that Shelley’s name appears. So now I can pretend I don’t know what you’re talking about when you ask her name (cue evil grin). No, seriously – thanks for the catch.
        Great idea to do these on YouTube!

        1. Hahaha….sure…you edit and look all pro now and I look like the one with the tired brain. 😉 Just teasing…I am all cool with it. 🙂 Thanks for the clarification.

  5. Karen, I enjoyed reading your book review of these two books. I like to read book reviews as it helps me decide whether to pick up a book or not, or to go looking for a specific one. But, like you, I do not like writing them very much. However, the structure of the #FridayBookShare format looks inviting; maybe I’ll try it.


    1. Hi Jude. I’m not usually a fan of templates but when they make a task I don’t enjoy feel ‘plug and play’ and sometimes actually fun, I’m all in! I’d love to hear about what you are reading and enjoying in these early days of your retirement.

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