March 30, 2008
Eat, Pray, Love
Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
Nonfiction - Memoir/Spirituality
2006 Penguin Books
Finished on 3/28/08
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything a modern American woman was supposed to want -- husband, country home, successful career -- but instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she felt consumed by panic and confusion. This wise and rapturous book is the story of how she left behind all these outward marks of success, and of what she found in their place. Following a divorce and a crushing depression, Gilbert set out to examine three different aspects of her nature, set against the backdrop of three different cultures: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence.
Yay! This is one of those over-hyped books that turned out to be a big winner! Eat, Pray, Love has received so much attention since Elizabeth Gilbert first appeared on Oprah last October. I rarely watch Oprah, but happened to see an ad for this particular show and decided to tune in. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to "Liz" tell the story of her quest to find herself in a year of travel after her divorce. Her anecdotes were a mix of sadness, humor, and ultimately peace and she struck me as one of those women I'd like to know; someone I could sit and talk to for hours, laughing over a couple of glasses of wine, nodding my head in agreement, feeling pangs of envy about all the places she'd traveled to, yet also understanding the pain and confusion that comes when one's marriage falls apart. I knew I had to read this book and was thrilled when my husband included it in my stack of Christmas books. Of course, the book remained in a stack on the living room table while other books called out to me. I knew when the time was right, I'd pick it up. I just didn't want to rush into it while the hype was still swirling. At work, customers continued to ask for it ("You know, that 'eating prayer' book of Oprah's?"). Book group members were buying multiple copies. Mothers were buying it for their grown daughters. Daughters were buying it for their mothers. We couldn't keep it in stock! (I believe it's still on the New York Times Best Seller list.) And yet, I waited. I didn't want this to be another disappointment simply because I'd heard too much about it.
I'm glad I held off, as my book group voted to read it for our April selection. (Surprisingly, only one member has already read it!) It's a fairly quick read and I wound up with over three dozen Post-It flags marking various passages. Yep, it definitely lived up to all the hype. I loved it. I would have given it a perfect 5/5, but it took me a little while to get into the author's writing style and I found a couple of spots that could've used a little more editorial attention. (The use of "also" four times in two sentences seemed a bit sloppy, as did the phrase, "me and my lover" - although, she does write in a very conversational tone and perhaps "my lover and I" seemed too formal given the context.)
I have to admit that I was a bit envious of Gilbert's ability to take a year off and spend four months in each country. There were even a couple of times when she sounded like a spoiled, whiny child and I couldn't help but think, Hey! You have no idea how many women would love to be able to do what you've done. Get over it! And get over yourself while you're at it. But then I remembered how very long it took me to get over the heartbreak of my first marriage and decided to cut her some slack. Just because Gilbert was able to go to Italy and eat pasta and gelato every single day does not mean her heart wasn't hurting. And, yes, she's the one who chose to end her marriage, but that doesn't mean she didn't feel a sense of loss and sadness over the demise of the marriage into which she entered with the same hopes and dreams we all bring to our marriages. And yet, I still couldn't help but compare Gilbert's financial freedom to that of Joan Anderson's. In her memoir, A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman, Anderson shares the story of her own self-discovery after she decides not to relocate with husband, choosing instead to spend a year in retreat at her family cottage on Cape Cod. In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert writes:
I don't want to be married anymore.
In daylight hours, I refused that thought, but at night it would consume me. What a catastrophe. How could I be such a criminal jerk as to proceed this deep into a marriage, only to leave it? We'd only just bought this house a year ago. Hadn't I wanted this nice house? Hadn't I loved it? So why was I haunting its halls every night now, howling like Medea? Wasn't I proud of all we'd accumulated--the prestigious home in the Hudson Valley, the apartment in Manhattan, the eight phone lines, the friends and the picnics and the parties, the weekends spent roaming the aisles of some box-shaped superstore of our choice, buying ever more appliances on credit? I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life--so why did I feel like none of it resembled me? Why did I feel so overwhelmed with duty, tired of being the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper and the social coordinator and the dog-walker and the wife and the soon-to-be mother, and--somewhere in my stolen moments--a writer...?
My first reaction to this rant was disbelief: Eight phone lines?! Who needs eight phone lines?? If you can afford eight phone lines, a prestigious house and a Manhattan apartment, you can afford a housekeeper and dog-walker! What woman at some point in her marriage hasn't felt the same sense of overwhelming fatigue? And most women who make the heartbreaking decision to leave their husbands and that life more than likely can't afford to jump on a plane and spend a year in search of inner peace and balance. So stop whining, Elizabeth.
And then there were the "miraculous" events that seemed a bit too pat or contrived. Call me a cynic, but I had a hard time believing that immediately following the act of writing a petition to God, complete with imaginary signatures from everyone known (and unknown), including rock stars, dead actors and a plethora of political figures, Gilbert receives an immediate response. We're not talking days or weeks, but mere moments! I just question the timing. I also have a hard time believing that 20 mosquito bites can disappear after half an hour! (I'm lucky if they're gone in a week.) I'm just not big on miracles or coincidences. Just because an article about meditation and spiritual classes at a Hindu Temple appeared in our local paper the day after I finished this book does not mean it was a sign directed at me. As my husband says, you can find miracles in just about anything if you look hard enough. And also beauty, ugliness, kindness, and evil. It's kind of like when you start shopping for a new Jeep Wrangler. You never noticed them before, but now it seems like everywhere you turn, someone's driving one. I don't really think "the universe" is telling me, Yes! You should buy a Jeep! Look, here are some samples; go ahead, pick one! It's just the world as it is, Elizabeth; the fact that you're seeing it differently doesn't mean that the world itself has changed, nor does it mean that God has stopped what he's doing just to answer your prayer. (Ahem. Well, there you have my own little rant.)
And yet, in spite of these quibbles (there turned out to be a few more than I thought!), I still enjoyed the book. A lot! Gilbert is a likeable author with a conversational, chatty voice. There were some great lines that made me laugh out loud, tantalizing descriptions of Italian food, travelogue tidbits from all three countries, and enough information about Hinduism and meditation that piqued my curiosity, and I plan to do some further reading (perhaps something by Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama). I found myself warming up to the author, overlooking her questionable credibility, happy that in the end, not only did she find what she was seeking, but also that she befriended and helped several people along the way.
I keep remembering one of my Guru's teachings about happiness. She says that people universally tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fine weather if you're fortunate enough. But that's not how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don't, you will leak away your innate contentment. It's easy enough to pray when you're in distress but continuing to pray even when your crisis has passed is like a sealing process, helping your soul hold tight to its good attainments.
I do hope that in the time to come, we don't come to learn that any portion of this book was an embellishment or a complete fabrication by the author. There have been too many memoirs in recent months that have turned out to be more fiction than truth and as I read, I couldn't help but wonder if a particular person (or event) really exists or if Gilbert was relying on poetic license at the expense of a truthful story. Remember? I'm a cynic. I hope I'm wrong. Especially since I plan to read her new book, Weddings and Evictions (due out in 2009).