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!)

Publisher's Blurb:

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.

Favorite Passage:

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).


  1. Yay! I'm so glad you liked it! It's one of those hype books I haven't had the courage to pick up yet, so I'm glad to read your positive review. :)

  2. Anonymous2:51 PM

    Really great review. You'll have to let us know how the book club meeting went afterward. I purchased this book today and thought I might read it and see if it would work for my afternoon book group. We've voted on what to read for the next few months, but we have several memoirs and some difficult fiction. Some of the ladies are thinking it is all a little bleak. I think that is fairly common with book groups though. In order to have enough meat to discuss, it needs to have issues and be emotional at least. I'll try to start this soon.

  3. I've put off reading this book because of the hype. So happy to hear you enjoyed it. I will get to it eventually (I even have the book!).

  4. Like you, I've been shying away from this book, which I purchased last year. Thanks for mentioning the Joan Anderson book as well...I'd forgotten the title.

  5. I think I just began reading this when Oprah announced it for her book club.

    You shared many of my thoughts, along with the rating. :)

  6. Wonderful review! It is on my TBR, but I've been leary because of all the hype. It sounds really good though, so I will read it.

  7. Anonymous2:48 PM

    Very intersting commentary on this book, Les. I am a huge believer in miracles....the miracle of my child's birth being my biggest. However, I understand your feelings too.

    I probably wouldn't get much from this book as I feel no empathy or understanding of this woman. I have been watching, "The Housewives of New York City" and I am literally appalled at what is important....who you know, how much money do they have and how can you use them as a connection to someone or something bigger? It makes no sense to me. None.

    Thanks for the review....I loved reading more about your feelings than the author's.


  8. ". . . 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." Isn't it sad that we have to think that way?

    I've been so afraid to read this book because of the hype surrounding it.

  9. I must admit I stopped reading this book a third of the way through, feeling exactly like you described in your first (blue) paragraph: get over it. Our book club read it, and then watched the author interviewed on Oprah, and I felt a little annoyed (which is rather cheeky of me, I admit). I think it's a little self-indulgent to just bag your marriage and go exploring, but then again I'm always tryint to do the right thing and that certainly gets trying sometimes! I did like the portion of the Oprah show where we were introduced to her new lover, and I am happy that she found happiness. That was a good thing.

  10. oops, I meant the paragraph where you began "My first reaction to this rant was disbelief..."

  11. Anonymous2:30 PM

    I actually think this book did not live up to all of it's hype. After my mom's absolutely raving review, I decided to pick it up. I enjoyed it, I didn't enjoy it. It was written in a fun way, she was cute, funny but man was she annoying!! I was just rubbed the wrong way the whole time. I didn't sympathize with her at all which I think is a big part to fully liking the book. I also had to ask the question, because she had her book deal already, did her experiences create the book or did the book deal create her experiences? Something I know nobody could answer. Overall, I liked it okay but it's a hard one to recommend.

  12. I listened to this on in small snippets (10-15 min increments) in the car. The author read it, so hearing it in her own voice was nice. I enjoyed it.

  13. Andi - This strikes me as a book you'd really enjoy. Go for it!

    Kay - Thank you! I'll post a follow-up to the review after our book club meeting next week. I'll be anxious to hear your thoughts on it.

    The group I'm in is trying to read one nonfiction book for every two fiction. Next up is The Shadow of the Wind. We're just beginning to nominate titles for June & July. We're going to go with a Current Affairs or History book for the nonfiction choice. It'll be interesting to see what gets nominated and what the final vote is!

    Iliana - Isn't it a pretty cover? It's a quick read, too. Looking forward to your review.

    Bybee - Have you read A Year by the Sea? She's written a few more since that one. I liked it ok. Not as much as this one, though.

    Joy - Well, there! We finally see eye-to-eye on a book! ;)

    Teddy Rose - Thank you so much. Glad to hear that you'll give it a read. It's kind of nice that it's broken up into three segments.

    Gayla - Aw, thanks. But you know, in the end, I think Gilbert does have a sense of what's important and isn't a spoiled, rich girl. (She just came off that way.) She just happens to be lucky in that she could afford to take a year off to figure out her life. The book deal was already planned, so she got an advance and was able to afford to do what she did.

    Katya - Yes, it is too bad that we think that way. It's not fair to all the authors who have been truthful. I shouldn't prejudge Gilbert's credibility.

    Bellezza - I think one of the things that kept me reading was a desire to learn more about Hinduism and meditation. How did the rest of your book club members like the book? Was it a mixed response or did everyone feel the way you did?

    Maw Books - You know, I don't think I ever felt any sympathy toward the author, either. Interesting question - whether her experiences created the book or the book deal created the experiences. I may have to pose that question at my book club meeting!

    SuziQ - Ooh, I'll bet it was a good audio book! It's the perfect sort of book for short commutes.

  14. Les,
    I am so glad you loved this book! I can't stop recommending it.I have bought copies for both my daughters and have given others as gifts. I both read it and listened to it (nearly simultaneously) about a year ago and am about ready to read it again but am waiting to buy another copy since I discovered mine is actually a signed copy. There was so much to like and so many truths to be found. And didn't you just love Richard from Texas? And learning about the culture of the Balinese? Yes, we cannot all BE Liz but we can all learn from her. I am glad to hear there's another book but wish it was going to be sooner.

  15. Maudeen - I'm so glad to hear that you loved this book! I've been second-guessing my rating over the past few days, wondering if I was too generous. But I try to go with my first reaction as soon as I finish the book, which is probably good. Otherwise, I'm too easily influenced by what other readers have to say.

    I'm thinking about getting a copy for my daughter. She loves Rome, so I know she'll enjoy that part. She's has a strong faith, so I think the second segment would be interesting to her, as well.

    Yes, I loved Richard. One of the funniest lines was when he said something like "They've got mosquitoes big enough to rape a chicken!" I snorted with laughter when I read that.

    Thanks for the great comment!

  16. Les, this morning (Fri) E. Gilbert was on Sounds Like Canada on the CBC.

    If you go there maybe tomorrow, I think you can hear the excellent interview with Shelagh Rogers, one of the very best interviewers I know.

    From listening to her, I thought I'd like to read it, but after reading your review I'm not so sure. I'm not big on rich people whining. That said, if it helps someone going through it, that is a good thing. But there are so many worse things, as you so very well know. In the interview she mentioned Three Dog Life. Now that was an excellent book. So, I'm not sure if I'll read it or not. There are so many non-fiction books I am really looking forward to; biographies of people like Gladstone and Kipling and George Washington and those Mitford Girls. So, I'll keep it in mind, but it may be later than sooner. Excellently written with not so many 'alsos' :<)

  17. Nan - Thanks for the link to "Sounds Like Canada." I enjoyed listening to the interview.

    I think you might enjoy a lot of aspects of this book. Don't let my remarks about the whining discourage you. As you can see, in spite of that, I still loved the book.

  18. Les, I think everyone in my book club liked it more than I did. That's partly because my faith is so defined for me, and they all have more of an "anything goes" type attitude. One of my friends believes in reincarnation, so it makes sense to me that she is okay with the explorations this author makes into faith. I think every one was a bit envious? I'm not sure of the right word, that she could just up and leave her life. Sometimes, that sounds rather tempting. Did you ever read Ann Tyler's Ladder of Years where the mom just leaves?

  19. Bellezza - I'm not sure if I've read Ladder of Years or not. I've read several books by Ann Tyler, but I always have a tough time remembering which were which. And, I get them mixed up with Alice Hoffman's books.

  20. Nan sent me over to read this post - I think I passed over it the first time since I was reading EPL at the time and didn't want any outside influence. In any case, I've had a different reaction from you and enjoyed reading your thoughts. I'll be discussing with my book club tomorrow.

  21. Tara - I (finally!) read your review. In spite of your opposite reaction, I thought it was a fabulous review. I can see how you wound up not liking the book. There were several instances when I felt the same as you did. I wonder if you book club discussion was as lively as mine? :)


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