LIKE MANY WOMEN, my reaction — or shall we say relationship? — to Elizabeth Gilbert’s juggernaut bestseller Eat Pray Love (first published and 2006 and by 2008 a global sensation) was complicated. On the one hand, the book is mildly embarrassing; Eat Pray Love falls squarely in the chick lit category, a schmaltzy fairytale-like admission to the feminine hankering for fairytale-like love (someone even recently quipped on Twitter that the first problem she had with it was how to hide the fact that she was reading it). On the other hand, however, it’s a rather good read, a true story, a real woman’s memoir of overcoming a comparatively small yet personally overwhelming struggle. In its own fairytale-like way, it is irresistible — but this was also the source of its doom.
Now, for the few of you who may insist that you know nothing about Eat Pray Love, here it is in a nutshell: a financially successful but not particularly famous author finds herself getting divorced, going into depression, and then taking a year to travel in order to reinvigorate her life. In Italy, she indulges – eating her way through the first third of the year. In India, she joins an ashram (the book is extremely spiritual, and this section is so heartrendingly painful that you wonder why anyone would call this book fluffy… until you get to the next). And finally, in Indonesia, tying up the circle, she finds love.
All of this is a true story, told in a fashion that is alternately charming, mildly annoying, and deeply honest.
So when the sequel came out, of course I had to read it. Snarkily, with some of usual disclaimers, but with some real excitement about its subject matter (and a continuing passive-aggressive crush on the earlier book). Committed: A Skeptic’s View of Marriage picks up where Eat Pray Love left off – i.e. the author and her Brazilian-born, Bali-discovered lover float off into their happily ever after. Until the US government interfered.
As a foreigner whose trips into the country were not only frequent, but whose exits themselves were only border runs for visa renewals, Gilbert’s partner Felipe finds himself in trouble with Immigration. Fortunately, they are given a choice: if they get married, they can continue their lifestyle (sans border running, too!). Desperately, they agree — but both having survived divorce, the idea of remarriage is significantly terrifying. But the process is so complex that the couple essentially has to spend almost a year outside the country, waiting for the fiancee visa to come through, and Gilbert spends this time confronting her traumas and issues about the institution of marriage, ruminations and research that eventually became Committed.
Committed is a feminist memoir, make no mistake about it. It is an empowering, thought-provoking read that I would recommend to anyone who 1. wants to marry, 2. doesn’t want to marry, 3. is concerned about civil rights and international affairs (in all senses of the term!). It’s important that the events it describes happened prior to Eat Pray Love‘s insane success. Not unlike the happy coincidence of having met her new love at the end of her first book’s journey, everything that happens therein was also spontaneous. Gilbert leaves little doubt that nowhere during her ten months of bad traffic and matrimonial panic wandering around Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia could it have occurred to her that she might exploit this bout of hard luck. She went through the experience with no guarantee of a platform to discuss, let alone capitalise on, it. Because of this, it is all the more relevant. This isn’t a celebrity memoir, but an ordinary couple’s absolutely commonplace struggle in a world that loves and enforces its borders even as it claims to have none.
Now, this sort of gets back to the problem with Eat Pray Love. Which was not, strictly speaking, a real problem with Eat Pray Love itself, but with exactly how the memoir got co-opted into the chick-lit category. Not chick-lit as in light and fun, but chick-lit as in delusional-inducing, Prince-awaiting, hearts-a-breaking. And that problem was that many – many, many, many – of us are where Gilbert was at the start of that book. Lying on the bathroom floor bawling. And in the course of a few hundred pages, in about a year, she was both literally and figuratively somewhere else altogether. And the book was so engaging that it made it look easy.
The problem, essentially, was the expectation created. I encountered this personally in my own life, and practically every woman friend who has read it has admitted to the same rues. Some of them had become especially resentful toward Gilbert. This was not a phenomenon restricted to my circles — a real backlash against Eat Pray Love and its author occurred among its disenchanted readership. Its most common contentions, as discussed on comment forums all over the Internet, were that Gilbert was selfish, and as a white American with some wealth, she was operating from a place of privilege and entitlement. “Not all of us can give up our lives and jetset for a year” was a common refrain — as though if only we could, we would also land ourselves true love and astronomical book sales (a phrase Gilbert’s own sister, married with children and obligations of her own, sarcastically echoes in one email exchange in the book).
But here’s the thing. I don’t think – especially having noticed Committed‘s incredible redemptive powers – that Gilbert meant for her memoir to have anything to do with typically misguiding light literature aimed at women.
On its own steam, Committed is an important book, completely relevant to our world today and the choices we are faced with as thinking women who sometimes have no alternative but to acquiesce to a fundamentally patriarchal institution (even if we believe we want it, with eyes open or closed). But it’s also a most marvellous redemption for Eat Pray Love‘s unintended consequences (and there were some). As she points out almost guilelessly in the introduction, prior to Eat Pray Love, Gilbert was mostly known for writing about men. Her three prior books – Stern Men, Pilgrims and The Last American Man – were explorations of masculine life — fiction and nonfiction about “supermacho characters: cowboys, lobster fishermen hunters, trucksters, Teamsters, woodmen”. As a journalist, Gilbert had even gone as far as dressing in drag for a week, complete with a birdseed filled condom stuffed in her pants.
She doesn’t mention this in this book, but it occurred to me that even before Eat Pray Love, it is ironic that the most lucrative of her projects was probably when a magazine article she wrote about her bartending experiences became the basis for the decidedly fluffy rom-com Coyote Ugly. Sadly, between that and Eat Pray Love, her broader scope of work was overshadowed. Call it Gilbert’s chick-lit curse. And Committed, quite decisively, breaks it.
The truth is, I am still bawling on my floor. And I do wish I hadn’t ever heard the word-of-mouth that hyped Eat Pray Love as some sort of semi-prophetic text, because it did result in a few regrettable actions for me at the time (oh hey, a few good anecdotes too). But Committed‘s redemptive powers are such that not only does it completely absolve Gilbert of any hand played in the prolonged miseries of some of her readers, but it also elevates her, in a way that Eat Pray Love couldn’t possibly, to the role already assigned to her by the same masses of sad readers: that of the high priestess, the knowing one, a Solomon-like figure who could provide a solution.
Marriage, whether we like it or not, is a necessary decision for many of us. Whether the larger bodies we aim to please are governments, families, societies or own guilt-tripping demons, it can be an inevitability. Committed does two things, and does them beautifully — it strips the institution of its veneer of romance. And then it reinstates it, at a far more meaningful level.
Committed will probably help many more women’s hearts and choices than Eat Pray Love did because there is absolutely nothing here but gritty realism — the facts of the world and its requirements, and how a relationship must necessarily be an accord of solidarity in negotiating these facts and requirements. It will also, hopefully, further the cause of same-sex marriage. As Gilbert most unselfishly points out in the book, she and Felipe are fortunate to even have this choice. Across the world, most lovers of the same gender do not. And when it comes to the paperwork — immigration, insurance, death and taxes – they suffer in ways that heterosexuals can take for granted that they won’t have to endure.
And Eat Pray Love, that old bugaboo? Let’s just say I am really looking forward to the film. Aren’t you?
Filed under: Books, Institutions, Love, Marriage, Popular Culture, Relationships, Women's Lives | Tagged: Books, choices, Committed, divorce, Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, feminism, Institutions, Marriage, Relationships |