Elizabeth Gilbert isn't as lame as you think
LIT I read Eat, Pray Love a while ago, and I'm nervous to tell you that I liked it. Ever since bottle blonde Julia Roberts assumed her best worried-kitten face for the book's film version, no self-respecting lit snob would ever admit to having enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert's account of her year of finances-be-damned travel, healing from divorce, and fulminations on the belabored pursuit of love.
The release of her follow-up, Committed (Viking Adult), a socio-historical look at marriage couched in the story of Gilbert's own unexpected union to her green card-challenged hubby Felipe — and the announcement of her Jan. 14 appearance at the Yoga Journal Conference — goaded me to examine just why people are down on Gilbert. After perusing the con side (a blog called Drink Curse Hate was enlightening) I found that the ire seems to hinge on two precepts: that she is self-centered, and that her writing is what we diminutively refer to as chick lit. Well three, if you count complaints about her flippant usage of Eastern spirituality for self-help. But I'm not sure I have much to answer back to on that front.
First, a self-centered writer? Well stomp my keyboard and call me Danielle Steele. Writers write because we think we have something interesting and important to say. There are plenty of writers who write about themselves, and only themselves, and whom people fall over themselves to love. Hey, David Sedaris. Eat, Pray, Love is indeed all about Gilbert, but that doesn't make it uninteresting. Glamorous travel writer leaves unsatisfying marriage, mends heart with an empowering trek around the world, yoga, Italian food, and impressively hunky Brazilian men encountered along the way. Hate on, haters, you'd write about it if it happened to you.
Second, chick lit. Literature written for chicks, by chicks, about chicks — am I getting the definition right? This term can stop being a pejorative one yesterday, as far as I'm concerned. And really, any book that teaches women that it's okay to long for more than children and complete kitchen sets (which EPL does in spades) should be applauded in these uncertain times.
The funny thing about Gilbert is that before Eat, Pray, Love, she had a thriving writing career. Her creative nonfiction books were about men, of all things: an account of the macho culture of a Maine fishing village (named Stern Men) and the tale of an awe-inspiring, if prickly master outdoors-man (this titled The Last Man in America). Gilbert was a regular contributor at Spin and GQ, for which she penned the article on her days bartending at one of Manhattan's most testosterone-heavy dives, Coyote Ugly Saloon. There was a movie based on that one, by the way.
"I couldn't believe that Disney wanted to buy this story, it was so raunchy," Gilbert tells me over the phone from the converted New Jersey church where she and Felipe had set up shop just prior to the onset of Eat, Pray, Love fever. "I still don't know how they did it — I was like no! I can still smell the vomit."
No, she could never have anticipated the last book's zeitgeist-level success. No, she doesn't expect Committed to replicate those sales numbers. The Eat, Pray, Love mania was "like a big circus parade going on just outside my door nonstop. I spend my day washing dishes and doing laundry and then I look out the window and go, 'Wow, there's that circus out there — they have dancing bears!' and then I go back to doing what I'm doing."
As far as she's concerned, the book was the pinnacle of her career — and that's fine. "The definition of a phenomenon is that it only happens once and you don't know why it happened."
But my money's on Committed to be a success in its own right. The premise: Gilbert's just not that into marriage. But marry she must, to secure Brazilian hubs Felipe the right to live in the country they've made their home, so she embarks on finding out what the hell it is about societally recognized partnership that people down through history have found acceptable, even appealing. She comes up with divergent and fascinating tidbits: that early Christians eschewed marriage, a socially conservative writer's thesis that marriage is in itself a subversive act.
I read the book in a day. Gilbert's conversational flow carries you through her life's intimate details, like the transcribed list of personal faults she complied for Felipe. (She includes her need for attention and overly enthusiastic cold shoulder, yet leaves out the inevitability that every iota of their relationship will at one point be discussed by book clubs around the country.) A tone as engaging as hers has rarely been applied to the question of what marriage means in this day and age, and it's refreshing to see that matter given some thought — even if her research is by her own admission not exhaustive. Hey, I probably wouldn't have read the book if it had been.
I wanted to give the book to my newly sprouted crop of married friends, see how my mom reacts to Gilbert's conclusions on child rearing, copy a chapter on the importance of solo travel for my boyfriend to read.
But they'd probably make fun of me. Elizabeth Gilbert? Please, that's chick lit.
YOGA JOURNAL CONFERENCE: AN EVENING WITH ELIZABETH GILBERT
Jan. 14, 7:30 p.m.,
$29–$39 conference attendees, $49–$59 regular admission
5 Embarcadero Center, SF