An Uncommon Man

Review #35

Book: Common Sense by Thomas Paine

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: bookbookbookbook

I mentioned in my last post that as part of my Revolutionary summer I watched The Revolution series on the History channel. One episode devoted a lot of time to Thomas Paine and his writing and printing Common Sense. At the Minuteman National Historical Park Visitor’s Center in Concord a few days later, I saw a little volume of Mr. Paine’s most famous essay that matched my bound editions of the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Liking things in a set, I bought the little brown book and proceeded to read it.

I was totally blown away.

The first few pages were a bit tough going, as 18th century English is quite different from what we speak and read today. Once I caught on to the rhythms, phrasing, and expressions, however, I found myself totally engrossed in what is perhaps the most aptly named written work. Ever. One of the historians in the Revolution series said that there were no statues of Mr. Paine because he was considered too much of a radical. And as radical as his ideas might have been for a British subject in 1776, I found them cogent and perfectly logical. In fact, he was astonishingly prescient as well.

Overall, Mr. Paine’s position is that the colonies should not be seeking redress or reconciliation from the King or Parliament for their actions concerning the events in Lexington, Concord, and Boston in 1775. Instead, Mr. Paine posits, the colonies should break from England entirely and form their own country. Sound familiar? Yes, but Mr. Paine wrote this in January 1776, six months before the Continental Congress came to the same conclusion and set about writing the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, Mr. Paine’s pamphlet (coincidentally published in Philadelphia) remains to this day one of the highest circulated essays of all time and no doubt the founding fathers read it and were influenced by it.

In defense of his opinion, Mr. Paine argues that first of all, no man has the right to be a king. He cites Biblical authority from multiple places in scripture about how God did not intend for there to be kings. This quite flies in the face of the contemporary universally accepted concept of the divine right of kings. Mr. Paine then goes on to say that for a century America had been operating as a de facto country (and provides numerous examples of this idea) so why should we seek reconciliation for a situation that never really existed? He further points out the folly of being governed by an authority three thousand miles of ocean away (again, with supporting evidence) and the impossibility of this being an effective administrative system.

Mr. Paine goes on to show himself as quite the republican (meaning one who advocates a republic with an elected government rather than a monarchy with appointed cronies in positions of power) by criticizing the existence of the House of Lords and how Members of the House of Commons are elected. He outlines a plan for an elected executive and a legislative body with the number of representatives based on the population of each state. Again, the founding fathers must have been paying close attention.

It is often said that Thomas Paine was not necessarily the originator of these ideas. Rather, heavily influenced by the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Franklin, he took the concept of human rights and made it accessible to the masses. Quite successfully, too. Prior to the printing of Common Sense, the “skirmishes” in Massachusetts had been seen by the colonies as primarily a New England problem. His pamphlet raised colonists’ awareness of the true issues at stake and helped to transform 13 colonies into one cohesive entity, with one voice. He took what was The Plain Truth (his original title for his incendiary work) and made us all aware of what is simply Common Sense.

The Spies Who Loved Their Country

Review #34

Book: Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: bookbookbookbook

This seems to be a Revolutionary kind of year for me. In January I read David McCulloch’s 1776. Then I found this book about intelligence work during the war. Then I discovered the AMC series TURN, which coincidentally used this book as a major reference. Then I came across a series on the History Channel called The Revolution and found myself hooked. And then I visited Concord and Lexington this summer. So there was a lot of revolution going on in my life, and all of it good.

In his book, Mr. Rose traces the origins and activities of the Culper spy ring. This was a group of friends from Long Island who gathered intelligence for the Patriot cause. And in so doing, they changed spycraft forever.

Ever since there have been country boundaries, there have been spies. But, before 1776, spy work was mostly carried out by military men. These spies would report directly to their military spymaster who would then have to wait for multiple reports from multiple agents to confirm authenticity of the intelligence. The Culpers rejected this model. Major Benjamin Tallmadge designed a new method of spying under the direction of General Washington himself. Instead of military men, the Culper agents were civilians, Patriots living near or among Tory settlements, encampments, or ports. The agents either left coded messages for or met with a courier. The courier then delivered the messages to spymaster Tallmadge. The major, who devised the encryption language they used, would then sift through the reports and decide which ones to pass on to Washington.

The other huge difference between the Culpers and the spies that came before them was that all the spies in this particular ring knew each other before the war. That way trust was not an issue—they never had to figure out if a fellow spy was a double agent or if a source was a secret Tory. This was so important to them that as a group they refused to work with people they did not already know. It must have worked, because none of the Culpers were ever betrayed. A very good thing for them, since the punishment for spying was death by hanging (as Tallmadge discovered when his good friend from Yale, Nathan Hale, met his fate).

The Culpers were truly a rather remarkable set of young men (and perhaps one woman, Anna Strong, but her identity was never actually confirmed). Primary agents Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend (Samuel Culper Sr. and Jr. in the coded messages—hence the name of the ring) took huge personal risks to obtain their information, incurring sizable expenses that were never fully reimbursed. Main couriers Caleb Brewster and Austin Roe ran perhaps even bigger risks, since the messages they carried, while encrypted, could certainly have been decoded by British spies who knew what they were doing. Brewster was also a member of the Continental military, so he would always have been a target of the British regulars. Tallmadge’s day-to-day risks were not as physically dangerous, but as handler he had to keep his agents and couriers safe, motivate them to stay with the cause when things grew dangerous, and make sure they produced intelligence that would satisfy his boss, the Commander-in-Chief himself, who was obsessed with knowing what the British were up to. Quite a balancing act for a group who were all only in their mid-twenties or so when the war began.

What was also fairly amazing to me was that they all did this for love of a country that hadn’t even been created yet. Both sides in the war did resort to paying mercenaries for intelligence, but to a man the Culpers refused to accept money for what they did. They also chose to remain anonymous after the war. All lived to be in their 80s (an astonishing achievement for the time) and only Tallmadge even publicly acknowledged what they did—once in a brief and oblique reference in his memoir, and once to denounce two non-Culpers who sought pensions and recognition decades after the war for their underhanded assistance in the capture of British Major John Andre, which led to the exposure of the epitome of all traitors, General Benedict Arnold.

So in his interesting, informative, and engaging book, Mr. Rose introduced us to the Culpers; brave, honest, intelligent, gentlemanly young men who served their country when it needed them most. Nobody does it better.

Messing with the Hood

Review #33

Book: Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody

Audience: C

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating: bookbookbook

 

I think my first encounter with Robin Hood was actually a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I don’t remember too much about the cartoon itself, but at the end of the ‘toon there was a clip from the Errol Flynn movie, with Rob swinging in saying, “Welcome to Sherwood, milady.” Later I remember seeing and loving Mr. Flynn’s movie as well as Mr. Disney’s. When I was a freshman in college, my roommates and I discovered a Robin Hood series on Showtime, and we became big fans. I also loved the Kevin Costner movie from the early 90s. So when I came across Will in Scarlet and took it to be a version of the Robin Hood myths told from Will’s point of view, I eagerly decided to read it.

Didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Of course, there are all sorts of versions of the Hood legend, but in general, Robert of Locksley was a nobleman’s son who became an outlaw for killing the king’s deer. Prince John was a cruel regent for the imprisoned King Richard. His agents, such as the Sheriff of Nottingham and his sadistic lackey Sir Guy of Gisbourne, carried out John’s cruelty and heavily taxed the English subjects. Already an outlaw, Robert, now known by the diminutive Robin, capitalized on his fallen status and stole from the rich to give to the poor, aided by Merry Men such as Friar Tuck, Little John, Much the miller’s son, and of course, Will Scarlet.

In Matthew Cody’s retelling, it is Will who is the nobleman’s son. His family won’t publicly support John as king, and a major skirmish at Will’s family home results in Sir Guy killing Will’s uncle and taking over the manor. The adolescent Will is himself accused of killing one of Sir Guy’s henchmen, so Will flees and runs into outlaws in Sherwood.

There we meet Robin and his Merry Men. Sort of. There is no Friar Tuck, Much is a miller’s daughter passing as a boy, and Rob is a perpetually drunken yeoman. Not exactly the Merry Men I’ve known and loved for years. This was a part of my problem with the book.

Will is actually captured by the Sherwood outlaws and entices them to let him earn his freedom by telling them of the riches in a nobleman’s home (keeping from the MM that it is actually his home) that are unguarded and therefore easy to take. Will does this hoping to take a small army back to his home to avenge his uncle’s death and reclaim the family estate. Along the way, Rob sobers up and proves himself to be an incredible marksman with his longbow as well as a good strategist. It is Will, however, who rather inadvertently begins the group’s practice of stealing from the rich to give to the poor (he sees how his family’s serfs actually live and has an attack of conscience). This is the other part of my problem with the book.

If this were simply an adventure story of a boy getting outlawed through no fault of his own and having escapades with idiosyncratic characters he found on the run, I would admire this book. It has adventure, thrills, swashbuckling, male bonding, and just a hint of romance (between Will and the miller’s daughter). However, that is not what this book is. It taps into a well-beloved (especially by me) legend and doesn’t simply reinterpret it—it rewrites it. Mr. Cody has turned Will into Robin Hood. Why? If he wanted to write about a thirteen-year-old Robert of Locksley, great. If he wanted to see what Robin and the Merry Men looked like through the legendary Will Scarlet’s eyes, great. But in turning Will into Robin Hood, it feels like Mr. Cody is robbing from the myth to give to himself. And that’s not how Robin Hood did things.

Mr. Cody should have had his protagonist stick to poaching deer instead of poaching a legend.

Believe it or Not

Review #32

Book: Riley Mack and the Other Known Troublemakers by Chris Grabenstein

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Rating: bookbookbook

Riley Mack is 12-year-old on a mission—protect younger kids from getting picked on by Gavin Brown, the local bully. Riley does a pretty good job of it, too, aided by his giant friend Mongo, his tech-savvy pal Jake, and future superstar actress Briana. When Jamal, one of the recipients of his bully-busting efforts, joins the group, there is pretty much nothing they can’t handle.

Literally. This group locates and returns dozens of stolen items, breaks up an illegal dog-breeding business, outwits a crooked cop, and thwarts a bank robbery. Pretty slick for a group of middle-schoolers.

Also, pretty unbelievable.

I get that the improbability of it all is part of the book’s appeal. I get that kids will think Riley and his friends are cool. I get that this is a literary Ocean’s Eleven (the remake) for tweeners. I just don’t quite get charmed by this book.

Sorry, kids.

I know I am not the intended audience for this book and am certain that kids will appreciate it more than I do (hence why I gave it a three book rating). However, I also know that when I was a kid, I would not have  found this book particularly credible. I’m sure Amy the kid would have valued this book more than Amy the librarian, but the implausibility of it all would still have bothered me. Kids pulling a con to make a high-schooler willing to steal a dog for his dream girl? Kids picking locks, hiring limousines, setting up surveillance systems, deactivating security alarms, using night-vision goggles, and communicating through hidden microphones and earpieces? I don’t think so.

Adding to the incredibility of it all is the characterization. Riley, his friends, their parents, and various associates for their schemes are kind, smart, and helpful. The bully, the crooked cop, the devious bank manager, and the bank robbers are stupid, bumbling, and foolish. Definite black-and-white portrayals of the whole good guy/bad guy scenario.

Unrestrained storytelling seems to be Mr. Grabenstein’s style. While it worked in Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (which I loved) it just doesn’t here. I think it’s about context: Mr. Lemoncello, an adult, was the one who created all the impossible, improbable, unlikely situations and devices. The kids only had to interact with them, which they did in a manner believable for kids to do. The idea that kids themselves could come up with all strategies and contrivances that Riley and his friends do stretches the imagination just a bit too far.

Yes, this book is supposed to be over the top. I just prefer my stories to be a bit more down to earth.

Whose Biography is This Anyway?

Review #31

Book: Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: bookbookbook

As a pretty-much life-long fan of Louisa May Alcott’s work (I first read my sister’s copy of Little Women when I was eight years old) I have long had an interest in Miss Alcott’s life. A few years ago I read Susan Cheever’s biography of Miss Alcott and came away disappointed. Miss Cheever seemed to have an agenda—to “reveal” the horrible life Miss Alcott led and to paint the most unflattering portrait possible of Miss Alcott’s father, Bronson. Last month I paid a second visit (in three years’ time—again, don’t question the crazy) to Orchard House, the home the Alcott family owned. While my overall impression of the docent was not wonderful, she mentioned to another member of our tour group that the information in Miss Cheever’s biography was not to be believed. Considering my poor opinion of the biography, I was pleased to hear that.

I had better luck with Eve LaPlante’s Marmee and Louisa, but I did have a few issues with the book.

Since this is a dual biography, Miss LaPlante naturally starts off with Abigail (Abba) May Alcott’s life. Miss LaPlante discusses Miss May’s family and how they influenced young Abba, especially her mother, her Aunt Q, and her brother Samuel Joseph (Sam Jo within the family). Sam Jo in particular had quite an impact on Abba, both as a child and as an adult.

Miss LaPlante chronicles Abba’s romance with Amos Bronson Alcott, especially how it began with shared ideals. Abba was full of them, ranging from how women should dress and be educated to suffrage, duty to the poor, and abolitionism. Bronson was the ultimate idealist, so much so that once he and Abba were married and parents he would not sacrifice his dedication to what he deemed as his calling to the far more mundane task of providing for his family. This was the area of Louisa’s life that Miss Cheever seemed to focus on with particular venom. While Miss LaPlante recounts the neglect that Bronson showed his family and reveals how this made the Alcott family suffer, her take on the situation puts it into perspective. Bronson was terribly derelict in the monetary (and at times physical and emotional) support of his family, but it was not due to cruelty or malice, as Miss Cheever would have us believe. He was arrogant, vain, and selfish, but he truly believed that his purpose was to spread his ideas on education (and in time abolition) and that it was up to God (and other family members) to provide for his wife and children. Miss LaPlante never excuses Bronson’s behavior, but uncovers the reason for it.

The duty to provide for the Alcott family rested heavily with Abba, her brother Sam Jo, and daughters Anna and Louisa. Abba took on all kinds of jobs from landlady to spa matron to social worker. The girls were governesses, seamstresses, and paid companions. Sam Jo became a Unitarian minister, often contributing money to his sister. In addition, Sam Jo became a saint. He was an ideal husband, a loving father, a champion of education for women, an abolitionist crusader, and an advocate of women’s suffrage.

While I’m not denying that Samuel May was an uncommon man, he seemed to figure disproportionately in this biography of his sister and niece. Yes, we learn how Abba was ahead of her time in many ways. Yes we learn how Louisa came to be an author to support her family. We learn of Louisa’s brief wartime nursing career, how it left her permanently prone to illness, and how her most beloved and well-known work was not something she aspired to but rather wrote quickly in response to her publisher’s demand. But we also learn about Samuel’s association with William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, how he founded the Syracuse public library, etc., etc. It wasn’t until I was perusing an appendix and found the family tree that I understood: Miss LaPlante is Samuel Joseph May’s great-great-great granddaughter.

I applaud Miss LaPlante’s extensive use of primary sources (Abba’s and Louisa’s private journals among them). I applaud her even-handed treatment of Bronson, showing us the many sides of his character, illustrating that we are all a mixture of positive and negative traits. I applaud her highly readable prose that made Abba and her darling Lu come to life. I just wish she would have kept closer to the front of her mind just whose biography she was writing.

Child’s Play

Review #30

Book: Morning Glory by Sarah Jio

Audience: G-U

Genre: Realistic Fiction (in theory)

Rating: bookbookbook

A literature professor in one of my favorite children’s books (Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die) says that “the use of coincidence is an immature literary device.” If this statement is true, then Sarah Jio’s Morning Glory is the most infantile book I’ve come across in a long time.

Travel writer Ada Santorini, leaving New York to escape the pain of the deaths of her husband and daughter, rents a houseboat in Seattle for at least three months. While there, she becomes friendly with neighbor elderly Jim who care for his even more elderly parents Naomi and Gene. She also meets food photographer Alex, with whom she eventually has a romantic relationship.

When moving into her houseboat, she notices a chest turned into a coffee table. Inside she finds some belongings of a woman named Penny Wentworth. Soon Ada is drawn into the story of Penny, her husband Dex, boat maker Collin, a young Jimmy, and of course Naomi and Gene.

This is actually two stories in one, Ada’s and Penny’s. Reading the Penny chapters we learn that she is a very young bride married to a much older man in the 1950s. Her husband is a divorced artist who doesn’t want children (in addition to the family from his first marriage) and who maintains a loft in the city where he remains for days at a time when working on a piece.  Lonely and suspecting her husband of an affair, Penny finds herself drawn to the handsome Collin. Ada learns that Penny’s story ends cryptically when Penny mysteriously disappears and is presumed dead.

Each story in itself has some interesting moments. Ada’s story is a bit more predictable, but for the most part enjoyable. That is, until the coincidences begin popping up as the story inches toward the climax.

First there is the coincidence that Ada’s new love, Alex, is the divorced father of a little girl the same age as Ada’s deceased daughter. So naturally when Ada meets the little girl, as a mother she is able to establish an immediate rapport with young Gracie. Annoying and predictable, but minor. The greater coincidences come in the last chapter when we learn of Penny’s fate. I don’t wish to reveal too much, but suffice it to say that the Penny and Collin connection explored in that chapter is fraught with them. Not to mention that Alex also has a connection to Penny Wentworth’s story. That in and of itself is a coincidence, yet even within that connection there are additional ones. Miss Jio tries to explain one of the circumstances, but for me it is too little, too late. I’m all for surprising readers and keeping them guessing, but a plethora of coincidences is a lazy way out and a bit insulting to those of us who invest in a story.

Morning Glory had some good points, but the reliance on coincidence to wrap things up left me with some distaste. I gave it a 3. Coincidence? I think not.

Tomorrow is Another Day

Review #29

Book: A Year and Six Seconds by Isabel Gillies

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: bookbookbookbook

 

In Happens Every Day, actress Isabel Gillies relates the story of how her husband rather suddenly left her, their marriage, and their two sons. In this second memoir, Miss Gillies picks up where the first left off: she travels from the Ohio house she shared with her husband to the Manhattan apartment she will share with her parents as she rebuilds her life.

And the life overhaul is anything but easy. Her parents have a fairly large apartment, but it’s not quite roomy enough for one couple, one soon-to-be-single daughter, and two very young boys. There are physical issues, of course, with so many people living in close quarters (where to put all the kids’ paraphernalia, who cleans what, arranging schedules, etc.) along with financial issues (how is an unemployed woman going to contribute to rent, utilities, food, etc. as well as pay for pre-school?) and emotional ones (lack of privacy, how do they handle when the soon-to-be ex comes to visit the kids, depression over the failure of the marriage).

But just as the first memoir wasn’t all about the bad, neither is this second volume. Not quite a year after her marriage collapsed, Miss Gillies met the man who within a year would become her second husband. This relationship is also explored, both before and after marriage. Miss Gillies shares the joys and the challenges of meeting and sharing a life with the main character of Chapter Two.

Once again, Miss Gillies reveals her experiences directly and honestly, exposing both her good and less-than-admirable traits and actions. In one area, though, I can only find admiration. She was truly hurt and demoralized by the rather sudden dissolution of her marriage—all the harder to take since the catalyst for it all was another woman with whom her husband fell in love (a situation he denied even when it was blatant to Miss Gillies and their mutual friends). Yet, she managed to take the high road fairly early on. She talks about how the natural reaction (which she did indeed have) would be to “punish” (my word) her ex and his new woman, but she recognized that this would be “petulant and controlling” (her words) and chose not to be so. Miss Gillies is not a saint—this was not easy for her to do. But she did it. Anyone who can choose to be the better person while trying to heal a wounded soul is aces with me.

Then again, her choice to do this is likely why she was in fact able to heal so well. Certainly it was a reason why her healing did not drag on but occurred in a natural time. And it was quite possibly why she was open to a new, strong relationship “a year and six seconds” after suffering a devastating loss.

All in the Family

Review #28

Book: Sleeping Beauty’s Daughters by Diane Zahler

Audience: C

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: bookbookbook

When Princess Rosamond was born, the fairies Emmeline and Manon were rivals for the affections of Rosamond’s older brother Leander. When Leander chose Emmeline, Manon cursed Rosamond to prick her finger and die. Emmeline, of course, mitigated the spell to a hundred-year-sleep, and in time Rosamond slept, woke, and married her charming prince of a rescuer. Fast forward about 13 years and Rosamond and her husband are now king and queen with two daughters of their own: Aurora the responsible elder daughter, and Luna, the mischievous scamp. Unbeknownst to the girls, Manon appeared not long after Aurora was born and cursed her—like her mother, Aurora will prick her finger, sleep for a hundred years, but instead of having a true love wake her, Aurora will in slumber outlive everyone around her and wake alone.

The girls have been overly protected by their parents in an attempt to avoid Aurora’s injury and subsequent curse. However, she does indeed prick her finger on a quill. Luna and Aurora decide that their only course of action is to keep Aurora awake until they can find Emmeline to see if she can once again soften a curse.

With the help of the plant devil’s shrub (to stay awake) Aurora and Luna set out on their quest, joined by a handsome young sailor called Symon. They must battle Beasts of Gevadan, quicksand, sirens, a whirlpool, and of course, Manon, all to find a possible cure for a curse.

When I began reading this book I was intrigued by the backstory of Emmeline, Manon, and Rosamond’s brother. That in itself is unusual since ordinarily I don’t care for exposition. Even odder was the fact that once the princess sisters began their journey to seek Emmeline, my interest began to wane. I’m not entirely sure why that was. Fairly early into their mission I wanted to know how it all ended up. Undoubtedly my natural impatience kicked in, but I think there was more to it than that.

I believe it comes down to originality. The backstory was a new take on why the princess becomes Sleeping Beauty. That held my interest. Once Rosamond’s daughters set off on their journey the story became less original. Typical story structure for this kind of story involves finding a humble local to assist them (the aforementioned Symon), encountering and surviving obstacles of increasing danger (see the list above) which inevitably lead to the climax (showdown with Manon) and resolution (they all live happily ever after). Done, done, and done. I don’t really object to the use of this common structure, I guess in this particular instance the follow through didn’t live up to the early promise of the set up. It also didn’t help that the dénouement was a bit anticlimactic as well.

So while I found parts to enjoy, overall this story of a daughter’s repeating her mother’s life was a family tale perhaps best kept within the family.

The Paper Chase

Review #27

Book: The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

Audience: G-U

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Rating: bookbookbookbook

Sophie Diehl, an associate specializing in criminal law in a Narragansett law firm, is assigned to conduct an intake interview with the daughter of one of her firm’s most valuable clients. Maria (Mia) Meiklejohn Durkheim is divorcing her husband of many years in what promises to be a complicated and ugly situation. Mia immediately bonds with Sophie and insists that Sophie handle her divorce, despite Sophie’s total lack of experience with matrimonial law. Sophie herself is not keen to take the case, but Mia, her influential father, and a senior partner prevail and Sophie must navigate an appropriate settlement for this wealthy wife of a wealthy doctor who left her for someone new.

The topic of this novel, divorce, hardly interests me. I’m even less interested in a divorce among the filthy rich, and even less interested in an acrimonious divorce. Despite all that, I truly enjoyed this book.

The first thing it had going for it was the format. Told through office memos, legal filings, emails, attorney-client letters, law book chapters, and legal forms, this novel can be classified as epistolary. I tend to enjoy this type of presentation, especially when the entries are authentic. As much as I loved the characters and plot of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, I found Bridget’s journal to be inorganic: her entries were at times exceedingly long and related conversations in far too much detail. Most people don’t write like that in a diary. Miss Rieger’s interpretation of an epistolary novel was refreshing, original and (pardon the pun) novel. Admittedly, I tended to skim some of the legal papers, but overall the design of the book was interesting and intriguing.

The second thing this story had going for it was the characters. Three in particular, were standouts. Sophie’s mentor at her law firm is a 50-60ish gentleman called David Greaves. He’s smart, paternal, protective, supportive, and convinced that Sophie is up to her rather daunting task. I imagined him as silver-fox attractive as Sophie had a bit of a crush on him, and I confess that I did too.

Another character I truly liked was Mia. As the rather spoiled woman wronged, she could have been a caricature and altogether annoying. Instead, she actually shows the most growth. She goes from being a dependent (emotionally as well as financially) doctor’s wife to a strong-willed, spirited, confident woman ready to resume her education and become responsible for herself and her daughter. She makes several stumbles on this journey to adulthood, but that just makes her more realistic.

And then there was Sophie herself. Confident, but not cocky, smart but still with plenty to learn, she was a treat to watch as she traversed her way through a career challenge that included exploring a new specialty, not letting opposing counsel intimidate her, ruffling feathers of piqued partners, making mistakes and learning from them, and zealously representing a wounded and unpredictable client. It was also fun watching her deal with a famous bohemian mother, an indifferent father, a supportive and honest best friend, and some interesting romantic escapades.

So between an interesting take on a novel format and interesting characters, I had fun chasing The Divorce Papers.

Everyday Epic

Review #26

Book: Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: bookbookbookbookbook

Actress Isabel Gillies had it all—husband, kids, dream house, friends, second career teaching at the college level. Then seemingly out of the blue, her husband tells her that the marriage isn’t working and he wants out.

In this incredibly candid memoir, Ms. Gillies lays it all out—and we all discover that it wasn’t really out of the blue. For some time, Ms. Gillies had been suspicious of a new colleague of her husband’s (they all three were college faculty), though both her husband and his colleague denied any impropriety. Of course, her suspicions proved correct in that within 3 months after formally separating from her husband, he informs her that he and the woman in question are now indeed a couple.

I came to this book by way of Ali Wentworth’s Daily Shot. I saw an online blurb about an interview between Ms. Wentworth and Ms. Gillies about getting along very well with the “other woman.” I watched the interview and was intrigued by the equanimity Ms. Gillies displayed about being friends with her ex-husband’s new wife—the woman for whom he left her. I greatly admire people who can truly forgive and go beyond just getting over a huge hurt, so Ms. Gillies’ story intrigued me. And while I was a bit disappointed that the actual book was not about what I thought it would be (based on the interview I thought it would be about how the three principals figured out how to be friendly with each other) I found Ms. Gillies’ story so engrossing that I quickly got over that disappointment.

I have practically nothing in common with Ms. Gillies: I’ve never been married (so have never been divorced), do not have children, am not an actress. Yet I found myself identifying strongly with her. I think this was due to the exceptionally honest way she chose to tell her story. She is clearly a woman wronged, yet she does not paint her ex-husband as the total bad guy. Indeed, she owns up to her own faults and her role in the disintegration of her marriage. She exposes some unpleasant aspects of herself but it does not come off as either false modesty or attention-getting. It comes off as a revealing portrait of a woman whose world has fallen apart despite her best efforts to save it and who now needs to figure out a way to construct a new world for herself. It is a traditionally epic battle waged on the field of day to day living. Now that’s compelling storytelling.