It almost always takes me a long time to get on board either with anything new or with major bestselling books. I was initially anti CDs, DVDs and the Internet, and have no doubt that I would have been one of those people claiming that the talkies would never catch on. I’ll rush to buy a big-selling book only if there’s some kind of controversy about it, or if the author was paid a huge advance (so that I can complain about how all that money was ill-deserved). Usually, though, with big bestsellers, I feel that there’s no hurry to read them anyway, as they are obviously going to be in the bookshops for the term of my natural life. The thing is, though, that I have finally read Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love, now that she’s moved on from it and put out a new one, Committed, about ‘making peace with marriage’.
The first I heard of Eat Pray Love (and that’s the other thing: does the title have commas or doesn’t it? It doesn’t on the cover, so I’m going without) was a few years ago, when a couple of women I knew recommended it to me. The females in question are intelligent and, what’s more, hard-boiled, so even while I was instantly repelled by the back cover copy and especially its mention of ‘a toothless medicine man’, I did keep the book in mind as something I perhaps should get around to reading one day. Therefore, when a friend mentioned recently that she had bought Eat Pray Love while on holiday (with a book voucher and, she was at understandable pains to point out, solely for research purposes), I grabbed, with both miserly hands, the opportunity to borrow it.
Well, having just finished Eat Pray Love, it is fair to say that I don’t understand its appeal. One of the women who first recommended it to me told me that she liked it because, despite all its focus on sitting right down and talking to God, she found it funny and down to earth. In fact, it’s not at all, but neither are most books, so that isn’t a criticism in itself – it’s more that I just don’t understand how anyone can be hugely interested in its contents: a brew of a level of self-absorption that is terrifying even to me, mixed with hippie-ish concerns. In case anyone reading this doesn’t know the trajectory of Eat Pray Love, it is as follows. Gilbert, when in her thirties, realised that she didn’t want to be married, went through a messy divorce and belted into a soon-to-falter romantic attachment, and then went to Italy to eat; India to pray; and to Bali, to seek yet more mysticism, from the aforementioned toothless medicine man.
The following quotation admirably conveys the book as a whole: ‘When I wasn’t feeling suicidal about my divorce, or suicidal about my drama with David [her boyfriend, earlier described as ‘a rebel poet-Yogi from Yonkers’ and ‘God’s own sexy rookie shortstop’], I was actually feeling kind of delighted about all the compartments of time and space that were appearing in my days, during which I could ask myself the radical new question: “What do you want to do, Liz?”’ Still, it seems that, turning point though this realisation was, it had its own set of problems: ‘What was more important? The part of me that wanted to eat veal in Venice? Or the part of me that wanted to be waking up long before dawn in the austerity of an Ashram to begin a long day of meditation and prayer?’
Now, I was moderately compelled by some of what was going on at the beginning of Eat Pray Love, when Gilbert discusses her divorce-related financial problems. I can’t decide whether it’s a mark in her favour or a masterstroke of skilful self-aggrandisement that she makes a point of saying nothing about what her ex-husband’s failings as a spouse may have been. After all, the only thing we end up knowing about him is that he took her to the cleaners, leaving us to imagine that, not only did he do this, he behaved exactly like Patrick Bergin in Sleeping with the Enemy. Then, though, Gilbert leaves the stuff that is actually mildly interesting to dash off overseas and get into a, to me, nightmarish degree of speculation on ‘spirituality’, and her exact feelings and thoughts about everything that ever happens, or has ever happened, to her. The only break in the relentless boringness of her recounting her travels, including itemising her experiences with meditation, is when she discusses how much weight she put on in Italy.
Nothing sends me crazier than when people criticise a book for not being what it isn’t, as, for example, when a novel that happens to be set in the nineteen sixties, but is really only about how one family relates to each other, is damned for not addressing the Vietnam War. No doubt it’s my problem, not Gilbert’s, if I can’t get interested in spirituality and instead only care for tales of marital discord and financial strife. Also, if someone who has a bad case of the blues reads Eat Pray Love and in any way feels better after having done so, of course that’s a good thing.
But why is it Elizabeth Gilbert, specifically, who is hitting this chord with people? She may well be the most delightful person walking the earth, were one actually to meet her, but the woman at the centre of Eat Pray Love is immensely tiresome, at pains to convey that she comes to grief only through her great capacity for love, and munificence of character. For example, she describes herself as ‘the planet’s most affectionate life-form’, who has ‘a tendency not only to see the best in everyone, but to assume that everyone is emotionally capable of reaching his highest potential’. (Despite all this, I see she doesn’t see fit to thank in the acknowledgments any of the poor bastards who worked on the book.) She notes, too, that she can make friends with anybody: ‘People asked me before I left for Italy, ‘Do you have friends in Rome?’ and I would just shake my head no, thinking to myself, But I will.’ Furthermore, one of her (many) conclusions about herself that she reaches in Eat Pray Love is that she won’t ever be able to be ‘That Quiet Girl’. When offered the opportunity to be ‘Key Hostess’ at the Ashram Seva Center (don’t even ask), she was told that there’s a special nickname for the position: ‘…Little Suzy Creamcheese, because whoever does the job needs to be social and bubbly and smiling all the time’. Gilbert could only answer, with adorable pluckiness, ‘Madam – I’m your girl’.
And then there’s the question of why Eat Pray Love is garnering, not merely big sales, but, on the whole, acclaim from all and sundry. Even if you avoid Gilbert’s website (on which, in passing, at one point, she notes she has a ‘friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensitivity’) and just glance at the book’s cover, you will see excerpts of, apparently, raves from The Guardian and the New York Times Book Review. Annie Proulx, a woman not especially renowned for her warm disposition or generosity to others, also weighs in, calling Gilbert ‘a writer of incandescent talent’. There is nothing I would like more than to offer up here an intelligent theory about why it might be so that the book is getting all this applause, but I am at a complete loss. It’s as though the world has gone mad.
In terms of the general reader, I was mystified almost the whole way through Eat Pray Love as to why anyone would possibly give a tinker’s damn about any of this, but then we get to the end, where Gilbert meets in Bali a socially adept Brazilian man, who speaks four, and perhaps even more, languages fluently. When he first saw her, he ‘…realized somewhere deep in his gut, “That is my woman. I will do anything to have that woman,”’ and eventually informs her that he wants nothing at all from her except permission to adore her for as long as she wants him to and becomes her ‘attendant knight’. While this seemed as unlikely to me as the most unlikely of unlikely chick lit plots, they really did get together, which we know, as it’s her marriage to this man that is at the centre of Committed. So, I guess, as far as many female readers are concerned, the basic appeal of reading the book is as simple as putting themselves in Gilbert’s shoes and seeing that they, too, can go through a relationship break-up and end up with a man as slavishly devoted as this one is.
Where I do have to hand it to Gilbert is that she seems to have a gift for making a lot of people root for her, when they should really just find her infuriating. She notes, for example, that while going through the divorce and breaking up with her boyfriend, she had an added problem: ‘…a book I’d written a few years earlier was being published in paperback and I had to go on a small publicity tour’. She seems to be someone of ceaseless good fortune, and there’s usually nothing like that to make the world hate you. Yes, she had a bad time after a couple of romantic relationships went bad, but, Christ on a bicycle, who doesn’t? Usually, the only way that most people aren’t going to loathe you if, by the end of your memoir, you’ve been in a position to travel the world without even having to do what most of the world’s population would recognise as work, with an already successful career and a boyfriend who constantly tells you how great you are, is if you have told them a story of, at the very least, also having grown up in grinding poverty while being raped by an uncle. If nothing else, I have to admire Elizabeth Gilbert for whatever gift she has that makes so much of the world not want to see her fall on her face.