Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, Pray, Love is probably one of those books that’s easier to dislike in theory than in fact. So many things about Gilbert’s journey – the idea of travel as a means to finding oneself rather than experiencing a different culture, “cherry picking” bits and pieces of different religions, embarking on a journey of self-discovery financed by a publishing house – offend me, but she has a likable enough voice that most of these offenses became less grating to me as I read her memoir.

Her writing is funny enough, at times, but she swerves between treating subjects with a pleasant and light humor to going all purple-y about God and the universe and the way she experiences the world around her. The relative percentage of say, funny vs. over-the-top prose, changes drastically from section to section, so that in some ways this felt like three books to me, or at least three “novella-ish” memoirs linked because they happened to occur within the span of one year.

The first section of Gilbert’s memoir, about her travels in Italy, was by far my favorite. As a person who for a year and a half has not eaten real Italian food (I make a mean tomato sauce out of the tomatoes which are fifty cents a kilo in summer, but that is one tomato sauce out of a year and a half of being offered spaghetti with mayonnaise), I wanted Gilbert to spend another two hundred pages telling me about all the pizza she ate and wine she drank.

Second we’ve got four months at an ashram. As an atheist with not even the slightest inclination towards “spirituality,” I found Gilbert’s prose here to be too much – I am pretty sure my mouth was hanging open all through the second part of the book, me whispering, “No! People really write things like this?”

And I don’t want to say that what I experienced that Thursday afternoon in India was indescribable, even though it was. I’ll try to explain anyway. Simply put, I got pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute, and in that rush I suddenly understood the workings of the universe completely. I left my body, I left the room, I left the planet, I stepped through time and I entered the void. I was inside the void, but I also was the void and I was looking at the void, all at the same time. The void was a place of limitless peace and wisdom. The void was conscious and it was intelligent. The void was God, which means that I was inside God. But not in a gross, physical way – not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chunk of God’s thigh muscle. I just was part of God. In addition to being God. I was both a tiny piece of the universe and exactly the same size as the universe. (199)

Gilbert is still meditating and thinking on God when she hits Bali in the third and final section of the book, but here it’s not so much and it’s coupled with her meeting and falling in love with a Brazilian, Felipe. (My googling revealed, unfortunately, that he does not look like Javier Bardem.)

That I’m in the Peace Corps influences my reading of this book. Whatever you claim when you’re applying, most people try to join Peace Corps as much to “discover themselves” as to “help people,” so I can’t be too critical of Gilbert’s decision to travel solely as a means of self-discovery. There is something about travel or life abroad that we seem to universally agree acts as a positive agent of change, and while you can’t leave your problems behind you in the states you can at least hope that at the end of ….. (whatever, a year traveling the world, two years in the Peace Corps) you’ll return home a better person.

This is a cheap way of summarizing my reading of the book, though, so today we’ll be getting some outsider opinions. Right now (well, I wrote this on Sunday – so “right now” on Sunday) I am in my friend Joany’s apartment sitting next to my friend Jackie, a former Peace Corps volunteer who moved to Greece to, as Gilbert puts it, “idle at the traffic light” with her Greek boyfriend (who from the back looks suspiciously like her Macedonian language instructor from Peace Corps training). Jackie is, I think, uniquely qualified to comment on Gilbert’s book because, you know, she lives in Greece with a Greek boyfriend.

Me: Jackie, what are your thoughts on this book?

Jackie: (makes thoughtful noises) Elizabeth Gilbert is a narcissist. But I kind of like it, because I’m one too. Maybe anyone who’s on a journey of self-discovery is slightly narcissistic.

Joany: No…. (lays down)

Jackie: (laughs, picks at beaded cord on sweatpants) I have mixed feelings about the message it sends to women, because it says if I just indulge myself and find my spiritual center, I’ll be rewarded with a man at the end.

Joany: You guys are making me not want to read this book.

Jackie: Joany, who recently embarked on page one.

(long pause)

Jackie: But then I also find myself, at times, really relating.

And that’s about it, I guess. Countless aspects of the book are offensive, but enough of me relates to Gilbert and wonders if whether, by “finding myself,” I’ll be able to meet the man of dreams (Javier Bardem, apparently) that I can’t bash the book as much as I did before reading it. Living abroad, though, isn’t always as simple as Gilbert makes it appear, and I worry that readers will think, for one, the being rewarded with a man bit, and for two, that life abroad is a cure-all for all your problems. It’s not. Elizabeth Gilbert may have finished her year of travel a changed woman, but for most of us… we will be exactly the same person at the end of our travels as we were at the beginning, albeit with a few more stamps in our passports.

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Yeah, I found the India part irritating too. I think travel helps you surmount obstacles but doesn’t necessarily change you as a person as you claim in your final summing up.

Comment by leadinglight

Really interesting review.

This book has been on my TBR list for AGES. It’s not a book that I’m longing to read or anything; I’m just curious to see what all the fuss is about (and I quite like comparing books to movies). When I read the first page however, something puts me off and I just can’t get past it. Also that passage that you quoted also puts me off a bit, sounds a bit nonsensical :)

I know I will get round to reading it at some point though, just a matter of when.

Comment by Marie / Little Interpretations

yeah, this is one of those books not so much because i was interested in reading it but because i was interested in being able to add something to the never-ending argument over it. kind of like twilight in that regard.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Blegh. I found EPL to be incredibly self-indulgent. I only got through about half of it and while part of me found the ashram fascinating and (some of) the Italian food mouth-watering, the other part of me felt like I was reading some pre-teen girl’s blog. Seriously, how many times do we really need to read about her crying on the bathroom floor? Go lie on the couch! I don’t think I got as far as that quote you posted but claiming to completely understand the universe not only sounds self-indulgent but ridiculous as well. What does that even mean? I ended up loaning the book out and never asking for it back.

Comment by Jennifer Marcketta

exactly: i have no idea what so many of the things she wrote, when it came to religion, are supposed to mean. she makes this point that our language of drugs is derived from the language of religion; that when we talk about certain types of ecstasy associated with drugs, we’re really trying to get at this older spiritual language. but, whatever – she still sounded stoned to me through large portions of the book, basically any involving religion.

there’s also something very self-indulgent about her attitude towards religion, which is that of picking bits and pieces from different religions as they suit her. she doesn’t ascribe completely to any one belief system, but makes up her own from the current options, which doesn’t show (in my mind) a lot of respect for the religions she’s exploring.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I haven’t read this book and probably won’t, but I did see the movie which, after reading your review, seems to be right on par with the book.

Comment by Brenna

except that the movie, unlike the book, has javier bardem in it. i wish i could contribute something of more substance than that, but…javier bardem.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Great review…it’s been on my tbr for years too and jsut never rises to the top. I expect that if I read it my reaction would be like yours – good in bits but tedious or OTT in others. I do like your point re its message – that can be damaging to some I would think.

BTW You make a good point re reasons for being in the Peace Corps. I think most altruism involves some self-interest. And, as far as I’m concerned that doesn’t at all deny the value of the altruism. If you do it with a warm heart and to the benefit of others, then how great if you get something out of it too?

Comment by whisperinggums

like you write, there’s a degree of self-interest in most altruistic acts. when i applied to peace corps i was pretty frank about how i saw my service fitting into my “life plan,” and i think a lot of volunteers stick out the hard times because we know this’ll be on our resume one day.

thanks for the comment, i think you do a much better job of writing about this altruism/self-interest thing than i do.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I definitely did not love this book, but it was not as bad as I’d assumed. When customers in the bookstore where I worked when it came out asked me about it, I’d tell them that, for what it was, it was decent. I couldn’t bring myself to be more enthusiastic. I’d forgotten exactly what some of the writing was like, so thank you for providing that quote!

Comment by Erin

right, it’s not a bad book (i didn’t feel as pained or sad to be reading it as i did when reading david nicholls’s “one day”) but it’s also not one i can get real excited about. it is the sort of book worth reading to be able to talk about it, though, especially in a bookstore. the first person who told me to read this was actually my old boss at a bookstore; it only took me 4(ish?) years to take her advice.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I thought this book was okay, and oddly (for an agnostic with no interest in divinity) I liked the India section the best…

Comment by Amanda

I giggled as I read your post – there are two distinct sections that jumped out at me as exactly how I feel about this book. First, the Italy part should have been the whole book. I heart all things Italian, so I wanted more, more, more of all the food (the same went for my thoughts on the movie also). And the second was, oh noooo. Felipe, as wonderful as he may be, doesn’t look one iota like Javier? It cannot be! :)

Comment by Coffee and a Book Chick

haha, i’m glad i’m not the only one who had the felipe/javier reaction. given that google’s second suggestion when i typed in “elizabeth gilbert” was “elizabeth gilbert’s husband,” i figured there were others like me…but now i feel better for writing a review partly so i can grapple with the huge physical differences between the book and movie felipes.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

[…] McLain – The Paris Wife (02/20/11) Howard Jacobson – The Finkler Question (02/18/11) Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, Pray, Love (02/12/11) David Nicholls – One Day (02/06/11) Jon Krakauer – Into the Wild (02/04/11) […]

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