Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book is first and foremost about Elizabeth Gilbert. It chronicles an important period in the author’s life following a painful marriage breakup and divorce in which she wisely set aside time to recuperate and find new bearings. One can understand how a writer generally thinks about what is going on with a pen in their hand but one wonders about her self-consciousness, knowing that a book was in the making, and the extent to which it affected Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey and healing.

Gilbert is an outspoken New Yorker who writes with candor but in Eat Pray Love she often appears vulnerable, especially in writing about her lowest periods. She admits that she is a ‘yakker’ with a ‘cocktail-party-like-vibe’ about her and sometimes this talkativeness grates. Sometimes Gilbert borders on self-indulgence and the element of reticence is lacking. Readers will be glad to know that her hormones haven’t fossilized after her self-imposed celibacy but do they all want to know every probe and thrust, the strength of her Brazilian partner’s ‘banana’, the dynamics of their sexual gyrations and the words muttered on the pillow?

Eat Pray Love is one person’s story of working through a divorce and as the sub-title expansively states, ‘one woman’s search for everything’. It is not penned as a prescription for all in this state but Gilbert’s honesty and the verbal graphing of her confidence levels will resonate with thousands of readers who are members of the same fellowship of suffering. While she plumbs the depths of divorce and is mangled by the messy legal proceedings, Gilbert’s humor (which is usually witty and sometimes corny) and her turn of phrase, give the book some light with the shade. Skillfully, this blend is often in the same sentence. For instance, diagnosing her divorce, Gilbert writes about being in a “murky hole of bottomless grief” and ‘I was despondent and dependant, needing more care than an armful of premature, infant triplets.”

The structure of the book derives from the organizing image of the Indian prayer beads (japa mala) with its 108 beads and three dividers. Consequently Gilbert’s book has 108 tales (not tips) and three sections, dividing her journey between Italy (where she explored the art of pleasure), India (where she concentrated on devotion) and Indonesia (where she focused on finding balance).

The prayer beads are a colorful and fitting image but one wonders whether the 108 beads stretched the book too long and caused it to drag at certain points. Gilbert recognizes that “sincere, spiritual investigation is, and always has been an endeavor of methodological discipline” but apart from the reference to the beads and her times of meditation, there is little discipline about her journey and the writing of her story. Perhaps coming from a demanding New York lifestyle and possessing a ‘super conscientious’ personality Elizabeth Gilbert finds that spontaneity, serendipity and ‘the beauty of doing nothing’ are just what the doctor ordered and after all, how much discipline is possible or preferable in Italy, India and Bali?

This book might be placed in the ‘travel’ section of the bookshop and library but if readers think Eat Pray Love will offer a host of travel tips on what to see in Italy, what to avoid in India and where the best nightclub is in Kuta, they will be disappointed. The book, however, is loaded with rich cultural insights from this trio of travel destinations.

Gilbert goes to Italy but she doesn’t set foot within a museum or art gallery! This could be viewed as Philistine tourism of the highest degree yet Gilbert is a tourist or better still, a pilgrim, who is making an inner journey. The level of permission is a liberating gift that she gives to herself and her readers who would love to be asked Elizabeth’s frequent question, “What would you enjoy doing today, Liz?

The title of the book points to a religious section and Gilbert charts her quest, especially in the Indian experience of devotion and in the phase of Bali balance. The author writes about ‘God’ and even though ‘culturally’ she comes from a Christian heritage her journey involves the sampling of many religious offerings. She is not motivated by theological curiosity as Gilbert is desperately looking for the ‘saving’ of her life from a ‘state of hopelessness and life-threatening despair.’ Her framing of questions are helpful in understanding the practice of prayer. The deliberate seeking of the divine, the peace in silence, the rhythm of meditation and the importance of a guide are valuable steps to learn in any journey of the soul.

Gilbert encounters some quaint religious representatives who color the pages as they offer everything from palm reading to potions. While the author acknowledges the value of scholarly study in matters of faith this book lacks constructive criticism that might help seekers to discern the truth and give ways to evaluate all that is served on the religious smorgasbord. While not being explicit, Elizabeth Gilbert tends to accept the popular idea expressed by Ketut, a Balinese medicine man, who believes that most religions are “same-same” and he prescribes that in the midst of different approaches one should “pray what you want.”

If this book encourages the flowering of the human personality in every dimension and attaining this in a relaxed balance, a further element that is missing is the aspect of service or doing something about the injustice and suffering in the world. Gilbert asks the question of Ketut: “So what can we do about the craziness of the world?” To which he replies, “Nothing…Worry about your craziness only—make you [sic] in peace.” One can appreciate that in the preliminary stages of Gilbert’s rebuilding, especially when she is in Italy exploring the art of pleasure, she would not be caring for the poor like Francis of Assisi or Catherine of Siena. As her recovery progresses in Bali, Gilbert very generously raises money to buy a house for Wayan, a Balinese single mother who has the care of two orphans. This theme does not appear to be sustained. This gesture could have been the catalyst for finding deliverance from the egocentricity and selfishness of so much religion and discovering that true love extends beyond the bedroom and into the slums, among the poor and destitute.

This book is a story of healing and hope. It concludes with an epilogue which notes that Gilbert seems happy and fulfilled in her present relationship and work. To take time out to concentrate on such essential parts of life as eating, praying and loving makes for a wonderful journey. How one puts it all together in the ordinary, everyday, common things of life is another challenge. Hopefully Elizabeth Gilbert might write a follow up story on living an integrated life, not as a traveler but in the humdrum and familiar existence of home.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 45.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Eat Pray Love; Japa Mala; Elizabeth Gilbert.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s web site offers this information:

Eat Pray Love is a #1 New York Times bestselling memoir … The book has been a worldwide success, now published in over thirty languages. It was named by The New York Times as one of the 100 most notable books of 2006, and chosen by Entertainment Weekly as one of the best ten non-fiction books of the year. There are now over one million copies of this paperback in print.”