It is also an intense memoir about a failed marriage. Not a marriage that died. A marriage that never breathed life.
Far be it from me to criticize anyone's failures at personal relationships. But Hamilton fails at her memoir.
Divided into three parts, Hamilton's book first describes her idyllic, rural upbringing with four siblings, roaming wild in field and stream. Then, abruptly, her parents divorced and abandoned her to her own devices as a preteen, followed by a period as a precocious drug abuser working as a server in New York City restaurants (this period ended when she was arrested for kiting money from her orders, but at that point she was still underage).
Hamilton was - obviously - smart and resourceful. She returned to what was left of her home with her father, went to college, worked as an assembly-line chef in New York catering weddings et al., got a master's degree in writing at the University of Michigan, returned to New York to start her own restaurant - all along learning about food preparation and restaurants - and the rest is history.
Hamilton met her Italian-born, Ph.D., M.D. researcher husband at her restaurant while she was living with her girlfriend from Michigan, and embarked on a three-year, passionate clandestine affair with him. But it was a limited relationship: they didn't - intentionally - know one another's friends. They really didn't know one another's lives. They didn't know one another.
The ostensible reason for the marriage was so that Michele, who was considerably older than Gabrielle, could stay in the United States. But, immediately upon their marriage, he ceased trying to win her heart and please her and became a big, detached, nuisance-slob. Here is just one description of how much his being irks Hamilton. As they enter her husband's family villa in Southern Italy with their two small sons, "Michele opened his suitcases and within five minutes exploded like a dandelion gone to seed, his shit floating all over the house and landing wherever it may, wherever he drops it." As she goes to sleep, his reading to their son in the next room drives her almost to distraction, "noticing how impossibly thick his already thick accent gets as soon as we get to Italy every year."
But that's not what she really hates about him - which suffuses the third part of the book. That is revealed when, on their last annual summer trip to visit his family in Italy, he says he was thinking about something, and it turns out to be the new iPhone. Hamilton reflects that, over their decade together, "he has never, incredibly, incomprehensibly, said anything important to me," and she loses her "vacation to a seething, hot black rage that crawled up the back of my neck and covered my head and nose and mouth until I was suffocated by it and could barely breathe."
Women don't usually detail such hot hatred in an ongoing marriage, one where the man hasn't beaten her, where they still have two young kids, where she hasn't replaced him with some more suitable mate - the book ends on her last failed trip with her husband to his homeland. And, so, this last straw seemingly presages their final break-up - although you don't actually get to see those shards.
There have been books in which women say horrible things about ex-husbands and lovers - think of Anna Kashfi's "Brando for Breakfast," Erica Jong's psychiatrist husband in "Fear of Flying," Claire Bloom's depiction of Philip Roth in "Leaving a Doll's House," and Amy Wallace's sad memoir (perhaps she wasn't angry enough) "Sorcerer's Apprentice: My Life with Carlos Castaneda." Then, of course, there was Nora Ephron's brilliant "Heartburn."
In all those books, the women portray themselves as victims, if not of actual beatings, then of crippling soul-abuse. But Hamilton is not an abuse victim type. She just doesn't take guff. And her husband doesn't do anything in particular to her - cheat on her, steal money from her, try to deprive her of her kids, strenuously belittle her. No, Michele looks more like an average, if kind of sad-sack, guy - perhaps a mama's boy.
Hamilton's anger is more about what she has - for some unfathomable reason - deprived herself of: "Ever since I was actually married, I have hoped for it to be everything I think a real marriage should be, an intimacy of the highest order." But her storyline indicates time and again that she picked the wrong person to invest such hopes in.
Fair enough. We all have problems (perhaps some more than others). But what does this say about Hamilton?
"Ah," you say, "who could explain such a thing?" I was hoping that Gabrielle Hamilton would, since she devoted so much attention to the topic in her memoir, and since it's caused her such preoccupying anguish. Her going-in expIanation that they married for immigration purposes doesn't jibe with her instant disappointment at her honeymoon (and why did they go to Paris, after all?), and certainly can't account for her quickly having two children with the man.
But she doesn't - can't - explain these things. Nor can she - a person efficacious enough to create, run, and chef a fine restaurant - seemingly do anything about them. They marry, they have a child, they have a second child, they - at long last - live together. It is so unlike this can-do person to suffer through all of this - in fact, she uses her can-doingness to explain how (why?) she has tried to maintain the marriage.
But perhaps thinking through the failure of this process - given her going through the trouble of exposing her life like this - would have reduced her bitterness. Or at least it might make it less likely that she repeats the mistake.
P.S. Today (October 12, 2011), The Post published an article on Hamilton finally (only now) breaking up with her husband last month, when she revealed she was still engaging in a long-term affair with architect Michael Hagerty, her brother-in-law (her sister was the only one of her large childhood family with whom she had a relationship that she described in the book).