January 2010

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

The Elizabeth Gilbert Experience

Before last week, I hadn’t read Eat, Pray, Love. That’s when I finally tore into Elizabeth Gilbert’s smash 2006 bestseller, right before reading her new memoir -- Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, a sharp, contemplative follow-up out this month -- and Stern Men, a lovely, surprising novel she published in 2000, when the idea that she might one day be considered a sort of lifestyle guru would have just seemed weird. All three books were really good -- in quite different ways -- and together they form a picture of a writer who is far more interesting than the frenzy surrounding her breakout hit suggests.

Eat, Pray, Love didn’t upend my world, but I liked it a whole lot, and I can even understand why other people lost their minds over it. For me, though, the most amazing thing was that the book, reputed to have some connection to chick-lit, was somehow, magically, not annoying -- even when it seemed like it should have been, as when Gilbert goes on at length about prayer and God and connecting to the universe. This miraculous non-annoyingness was what struck me most immediately, but the book has plenty of merits that don’t need to be qualified: it’s absorbing and funny, and Gilbert leaves herself admirably and appealingly exposed. It’s actually hard to be cynical about it.

Gilbert has a seemingly well-deserved reputation for being generous, smart, and supremely likeable. Of course, that reputation is based mostly on how she appears in Eat, Pray, Love: frazzled, searching, brave, compassionate, flawed -- the kind of woman that other women (and not a few men) feel like they know, are, or in some sense would like to be. But I’m a little wary of this drive to identify so closely with a writer-cum-character, which was part of the reason I had avoided Eat, Pray, Love in the first place.

After its success, Gilbert’s next book is, inevitably, an opportunity for her to choose between confirming or complicating her crunchy soothsayer image. In Committed, she gets right to the point, with an unusually direct “Note to the Reader,” in which she explains who she was before Eat, Pray, Love unexpectedly took the world by storm, and transformed her -- at least in the public eye -- into a very different kind of writer than she had been. She writes:

Before Eat, Pray, Love, I had been known in literary circles (if I was known at all) as a woman who wrote predominantly for, and about, men. I’d been working for years as a journalist for such male-focused magazines as GQ and Spin, and I had used those pages to explore masculinity from every possible angle. Similarly, the subjects of my first three books (both fiction and nonfiction) were all supermacho characters: cowboys, lobster fisherman, hunters, truckers, Teamsters, woodsmen… Back then, I was often told that I wrote like a man. Now, I’m not entirely sure what writing “like a man” even means, but I do believe it is generally intended as a compliment. I certainly took it as a compliment at the time.

When Eat, Pray, Love became a huge bestseller, Gilbert continues, “I suddenly found myself -- after a decade spent writing exclusively about men and maleness -- being referred to as a chick-lit author. Again, I’m not entirely sure what ‘chick-lit’ even means, but I’m pretty certain it’s never intended as a compliment.”

That’s a pretty loaded way to preface the book -- a deeply personal look at the social history and experience of marriage -- as well as an unusually straightforward way for a writer to address who she is in relation to her work, and how the reception of that work has shaped her writing. Not to mention a stark rejoinder to those who would love to reduce her to the soul-searching heroine of Eat, Pray, Love. There’s plenty of soul-searching in these pages, too, but for those who come to Committed looking for Eat, Pray, Love: The Sequel -- and there will be many -- Gilbert’s note signals that while she’s interested in thinking about how her readers see her, she’s less invested in satisfying their expectations, since she never set out to do so in the first place.

It’s hard to think of another writer who has published a book that so perfectly appeals to female readers, and could earlier have been said to “write like a man.” Gilbert didn’t set out to do this; she’d had some respectable literary success with Pilgrims, her collection of short stories; Stern Men (the novel), and her 2002 biography of Eustace Conway, The Last American Man (as well as, it must be said, a 1997 GQ article that was adapted into the movie Coyote Ugly). Then her marriage fell apart and she fell into an all-consuming, ultimately impossible relationship, and she decided she needed to spend a year eating lots of pasta in Italy, mediating at an ashram in India and chilling out in Indonesia -- and she wrote about the experience, because she’s a writer, and that’s what she does. The book that resulted was far more personal (at least in the obvious ways) than her earlier efforts. But it also seemed to come naturally. Gilbert was lucky to be able to travel for a semi-blissful year, and lucky that her journey struck such a nerve, but she didn’t write the book knowing that it would transform her life. The events she describes in the book, after all, had already done that.

Which brings us back to Committed. While in Bali, Gilbert met and fell in love with a Brazilian-born Australian citizen who she calls Felipe. Both scarred by divorce, they vowed to be together forever, but never to get married. Then Felipe, a near-constant international traveler, was coming back to the States with Gilbert after a routine stint away when he got nabbed by Homeland Security during the heyday of the Bush administration. He was forbidden from entering the U.S. ever again -- unless he and Gilbert got married. Effectively “sentenced to wed,” if the couple wanted to continue to live in the U.S. or ever visit it together, marriage was a bullet that needed to be bitten. Committed is the product of Gilbert’s months spent sifting through the history of marriage in a concentrated effort to find a place for herself and her relationship in an institution she’d sworn off.

Of course, many of the readers who relished Eat, Pray, Love -- many of the people in the world, in general -- don’t approach marriage with such skepticism. Gilbert knows this, explaining eloquently, “[J]ust as a sworn engagement can bring to so many other couples a sensation of encircling protection, our vow never to marry had cloaked the two of us in all the emotional security we required in order to try once more at love.” So while her journey in Eat, Pray, Love may be deeply symbolic to many women, who see themselves in her or are inspired by her quest, in Committed, Gilbert makes a point of (rather gently) insisting that the story she was telling in that book was her own. There was a real person doing all of those things, with her own ideas about what they meant. The way she dealt with her life after that extraordinary year actually says more about what kind of person she is and what matters to her. Committed is just as pleasurable as her previous book -- intensely thoughtful and personal -- but it makes no secret of her frustration with a set of traditions many people take for granted.

Gilbert really doesn’t want to get married. And she definitely doesn’t want to have children. The U.S. government is forcing her to compromise on the former, but the latter is non-negotiable. And so this book project was driven not by the luxury of simple intellectual curiosity, but by the necessity of reconciling herself with what she has to do. She doesn’t hesitate to cherry-pick facts and theories along the way, but she points out that this is what we all do in order to come to terms with such a fraught institution, whether we love the idea of getting married, or disdain it.

She’s hardly the first person to write a book on the subject; for years, writers of all agendas have ably twisted the meaning of marriage to support whatever conclusions they’ve already drawn. Gilbert argues convincingly that history doesn’t support any one philosophy except that marriage is ever-changing, and she finally finds solace in the idea that, as she writes, “It is not we as individuals… who must bend uncomfortably around the institution of marriage; rather, it is the institution of marriage that has to bend uncomfortably around us.” Her politics and past certainly inform her search, but she’s much more open about the fuzziness of it all, making Committed one of the wisest and most sensitive explorations of marriage -- or really, relationships in general -- I’ve read.

Coming off that high, I picked up Gilbert’s novel Stern Men, a hearty tale of two rival communities of lobster fishermen in Maine, and the spunky, complicated young woman caught ambivalently in their orbit. The book is great: tart and dryly funny and wonderfully crowded and (for exactly two pages) incredibly hot. I know what people mean when they say Gilbert was writing “like a man”: In part, I suppose, the book reads like the work of someone steeped in literature and ideas more than emotions (though really, the point of all this is that we, and our writers, shouldn’t have to choose between them). And it does seem to have been written by a different person than the vulnerable, personal voice of Eat, Pray, Love.

But it wasn’t. Sure, Gilbert has been vocal about the ways she’s changed since her divorce and the unexpected onset of celebrity, and so in some ways she is a different person: more confident, happier, and perhaps more inclined to write in the style that brought her so much success. Still, Committed is not really so far away from Stern Men. In both, Gilbert comes off as a writer skilled with both words and feelings, unwilling to be boxed in. Eat, Pray, Love was a feat, but it’s something of an outlier. It doesn’t make sense to define her by it.