Anatomy of Gabrielle Hamilton's Loveless Marriage

Nothing in the reviews of Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir about her cooking life, "The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef," prepared me for a book about a failed marriage. Not a marriage that died and failed. A marriage that never took wing to start.

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 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 each other.

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. That is 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."

You just don't usually get this kind of hot hatred described in an ongoing marriage, one where the man hasn't beaten his wife, where they still have two young kids, where she hasn't replaced him with some more suitable mate - no, the book ends on her last failed trip with her husband to his homeland. And, so, this last straw seemingly presages the final break-up of the stillborn marriage - although you don't actually get to see those shards.

There have been books in which women say horrible things about lovers and husbands - 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."

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 place such hopes on.


"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 explanation that they married for immigration purposes doesn't jibe with her instant disappointment at her honeymoon (why 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 - after long last - live together. It is so unlike this can-do person -in fact, she uses her can-doingness to explain her not leaving the marriage or changing it. But perhaps trying to do so would have reduced her bitterness - or at least make it more likely that she doesn't repeat the same mistake.