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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