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:
- Happens Every Day: an all-too-true story by Isabel Gillies (2009) Scribner
- An Unknown Woman by Alice Koller (1981) Bantam
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
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.