Thursday, June 5, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love -- Elizabeth Gilbert

I've been swept up in the hurricane surge that is memoirs. Since I first started paying attention to this genre with the A Million Little Pieces Oprah scandal, the market has been flooded with these books, for which the American public seems to have an unquenchable thirst. These biographies-lite appear to fall into two basic sub-groups, which I'll refer to as "Escape" and "Inspire." In an Escape Memoir, the author presents a life vastly different from the common experiences of his/her readership, which results in one of two general responses: "Wow, if only..." (see Three Cups of Tea) or "Thank God I'm not..." (see A Charmed Life). In an Inspire Memoir, the author depicts a life similar to the experiences of the ordinary reader that produces the following response: "Hey, I could go to/see/find/learn/enjoy..., too!" The current popularity of "a year in the life of..."-style books is a result of a preference for this latter category (and also speaks to the disturbingly rapid growth of reality TV) -- examples include Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.

Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love, perhaps the most popular memoir of them all (or at least of recently published works -- at the time I post this, it has spent 72 weeks in the top 150 bestseller list, according to USA Today), serves two masters; it is both an Escape as well as an Inspire Memoir, and this may be what has led to its great success. The book positions itself against an exotic backdrop: a year of travel (paid for by her publisher, no less!) to indulge in Italy, to ascribe to an ascetic existence at an ashram in India, and to find balance in Bali. But how Gilbert gets to this year abroad is far less drool-worthy. She first finds herself at the crux of an intense personal and spiritual crisis: a messy, gut-wrenching, and life-altering divorce.

And herein lies Gilbert's genius. She not only employs a double-whammy of today's most desirable literary vehicle, she also capitalizes on two hot topics in current American conversation: spirituality and reinvention of self. The former has been splashed all over the news lately with confusing headlines such as "More Describe Selves as Spiritual, Not Religious"; America loves anything billed as all-you-can-eat, and in more places than just the local Hunan Express or Taj Mahal Buffet. Gilbert, early on, aligns herself with this trend: "In the end, what I have come to believe about God is simple. It's like this -- I used to have this really great dog. She came from the pound. She was a mixture of about ten different breeds, but seemed to have inherited the finest features of them all. She was brown. When people asked me, 'What kind of dog is that?' I would always give the same answer: 'She's a brown dog.' Similarly, when the question is raised, 'What kind of God do you believe in?' my answer is easy: 'I believe in a magnificent God'" (14, Penguin Books 2006 paperback edition). That Anne Lamott, patron saint of the modern American spirituality movement, provides a glowing endorsement right on the front cover of Eat Pray Love gives Gilbert all the chutzpah she needs to jump feet first into such a dialogue.

The second of those hot topics, the reinvention of self, is easy enough to explain. With divorce rates skyrocketing and dire predictions of the necessity to change jobs at least 4 or 5 times in a lifetime, it's no wonder that many Americans find themselves, to echo a recent reality TV show, "starting over." Gilbert's foray into this territory makes her book approachable: by admitting to destroying her marriage, Gilbert shows herself to be fallible and vulnerable, just like all those turning the pages of her book, whether they like to acknowledge that or not. Ironically, Gilbert discovers that it is only through leaving the US -- the land of opportunity! -- that she will truly feel she has regained her identity and sense of place: "It was only later, after admitting this dream, that I noticed the happy coincidence that all these countries begin with the letter I. A fairly auspicious sign, it seemed, on a voyage of self-discovery" (30). And though her journey is the stuff that dreams are made of, as she herself allows, Gilbert here reaches out and connects with that basic human need in all of us to know who we are and where we belong.

To sum up, then, this Gilbert's recipe for success: with a dash of Escape thrown in to keep things interesting, her breezy, intimate writing voice and her little admissions of failure Inspire us to follow our own dreams of becoming personally and spiritually fulfilled while not making us frustrated that she is too perfect, too untouchable. The epigraph to the memoir, "Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth," is Gilbert's promise to herself and to us -- a promise that makes the book work. When she confesses that, only a few weeks after promising herself she'd remain celibate for a year, she desperately wants her young Italian tutor to kiss her on the stoop of her apartment building, we laugh knowingly: we, too, want to transcend and yet find ourselves unable to, though we would probably never tell anyone, especially not on the first page of our book.

However, the "truth" that Gilbert tells never gets much deeper than this, and that is why Eat Pray Love doesn't amount to more than a fun, shallow beach-read. Because she is trying to offer an Escape as well as an Inspire memoir, neither one is done fully. What Gilbert goes through in this "journey of self-discovery" requires her to question every decision she's ever made -- a process that can only be painful, mortifying, and lonely. But we never really see any of this. When Gilbert mentions, briefly, that she felt suicidal, she does so by personifying her depression and brushing it aside the way one might a beggar on the street: "Depression and Loneliness track me down after about ten days in Italy...The come upon me all silent and menacing like Pinkerton Detectives, and they flank me, Depression on my left, Loneliness on my right. They don't need to show me their badges...Then they frisk me. They empty my pockets of any joy I had been carrying there. Depression even confiscates my identity, but he always does that. Then Loneliness starts interrogating me, which I dread because it always goes on for hours" (46-47). A few pages later, Depression and Loneliness have been forgotten in the midst of a search for great pasta. Later, at the ashram, Gilbert spends an evening alone on a rooftop, making peace with the demons of her divorce. After following the directions on a handwritten list from a "plumber/poet" such as "When the past has passed from you at last, let go. Then climb down and begin the rest of your life. With great joy" (184-5), Gilbert is suddenly freed from the pain of her lost relationship and is ready to move on. But we know this cannot really be how it happened; anyone who has gone through such a loss must hear a note of dissonance behind her words. This doesn't Inspire us to feel that we, too, can change our lives -- it makes us feel that Gilbert isn't telling the whole story; and what's the point of a memoir if not to reveal such things?

Eat Pray Love is a lovely concept (the book's organization into a japa mala is explained in the introduction and creates a symbolic map for her journey) and offers a surprisingly fairytale-like ending. But these three commandments are not enough; simply to eat, pray, and love, while beautiful, cannot be "all/ ye know on earth, and all ye need know."

Final Verdict: **1/2

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