The best part about reading Eat Pray Love in 2012 is getting to tell people you’re doing it: Now that the book has been out for nearly a decade, most people with even a passing interest have already picked it up, and so I was treated to all manner of reactions—ranging from the intrigued to downright disgusted—when I shared with various friends that I was finally reading this runaway bestseller.
As with Never Let Me Go, EPL moved to the top of my pile once HBO started playing the movie, although I’m not entirely sure why I hadn’t gotten around to it sooner. Sure, the book gives off a generally annoying self-help vibe—I left The Strand’s $1 price sticker on the front of mine all week, lest anyone think I’d paid full price for the thing—but there was a time when you couldn’t sit through a subway ride without seeing at least one person reading it. That alone is usually enough to pique my interest (see: Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 50 Shades of Grey.)
More importantly, EPL’s concept is undeniably appealing: Who wouldn’t want to Eat, Pray, Love their life? Sure, maybe I’d forego the crippling depression that motivates Elizabeth Gilbert to start her journey, but I’m definitely on board for the rest of it: taking a year off to relax/eat in Italy, relax/pray in India and relax/relax in Indonesia. I’d perhaps alternate the order, or the goals (my memoir would be called Eat, Eat, Eat) but the overall idea—a fully financed year of self-discovery in three unique cultures—is awesome. In fact, The Great American Bookstore Tour is sort of my own mini-EPL (the truncated domestic version available to those of us who didn’t get six-figure advances on our travel memoirs.)
Of course, most people I talked to about Eat, Pray, Love found it annoying, either in concept (if they hadn’t read it) or in practice. If I were to sum up their various gripes, it would sound something like this:
“Oh, poor Liz Gilbert, who got to travel the world on a $200,000 book advance while the rest of us equally downtrodden peons have to satisfy our own search for life’s meaning with crowded midtown yoga classes or disappointing Italian takeout. It must be nice to have the money, independence and myopically upper-middle-class worldview to peace out for 12 months and think there’s something the rest of us could learn from your all-expense-paid vacation. It must be even nicer to refer to said vacation as the first time you truly came in contact with God, who was conveniently not otherwise engaged with problems like famine or poverty. It must be nice, in general, to be Liz Gilbert, who in less than five years’ time was transformed from a suicidal divorcee into a spiritually balanced woman, a best-selling author, a wife (again) and the subject of a big-budget Julia Roberts movie. Oh life, you are cruel indeed.”
Naturally, I understand the criticism, and it is at times aggravating the extent to which Gilbert discusses her two main problems: her divorce, and the disintegration of her post-divorce relationship with a younger man. Of course there are people who would (and do) deal with such life changes less dramatically, and with significantly less navel-gazing. But in fairness to Gilbert, EPL is a memoir, and so it would be rather difficult to complete without at least periodically looking inward, and perhaps dwelling a bit on the circumstances that led one to write such a book in the first place. Gilbert also tries—perhaps less frequently than some readers would like—to qualify her distress, and I generally got the impression that she’s a more grounded person than EPL makes her out to be…slightly more grounded, at least.
To be honest, my biggest struggle with EPL wasn’t Gilbert’s personality, or the impetus for her decidedly self-involved writing. What was most difficult for me to relate to was how much of Gilbert’s emotional recovery involved finding her way to God, and how cloyingly convenient it is to hit a brick wall in life and tear it down by deciding to believe in the divine. Gilbert goes to some lengths to qualify her faith, which is in a non-denominational higher power that represents more the practice of ceding control in one’s life than, say, taking communion every Sunday. And I respect that, just as I respect the power religion has to comfort the vast number of people it does. But my own decidedly lacking religious beliefs meant that Eat, Pray, Love lost me a few times: when a sobbing Gilbert is lying on her bathroom floor and hears an otherworldly voice telling her to go back to bed; when a meditating Gilbert feels a “soft blue electric energy” pulsing through her body; when a praying Gilbert gets “pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute” and goes “inside God.” You know, that kind of stuff.
Outside of a brief flirtation with Christianity in high school—little-known fun fact: my first tattoo, a dove, was inspired by said flirtation—religion just never stuck for me, and so much of Gilbert’s trajectory of self-discovery felt foreign. But there are still elements of EPL that even the routine atheist can take to heart: pursuing what makes you happy, traveling, exploring, taking time for yourself, being open to love, and of course eating. I’m definitely on board with the eating.
So at the end of the day, EPL did not change my life. Not even watching a well-cast Julia Roberts act out Gilbert’s various adventures convinced me that the path to happiness lies on the other side of an Indian ashram ….though I am willing to consider taking an older Brazilian lover. (By the way, the movie was decidedly less annoying than the book; something about not constantly being inside the narrator’s head). But I ultimately didn’t hate EPL as much as I was prepared to, or really at all. Of course it’s self-indulgent, and a bit trite, and definitely filled with the kind of self-help mantras I generally try to avoid. But the book is also transparent; it doesn’t pretend to be anything except what it is, and Gilbert doesn’t pretend to be anyone except who she is, even if that person is a tad self-involved.
Anyone who’s mourned the death of a relationship, contemplated the consequences of a life choice or wondered idly about the path they seem to have found themselves on surely understands that ruminating on these decidedly selfish topics doesn’t preclude the ability to understand how unimportant they are in the grand scheme of things. So while it’s easy for me to scoff at the circumstances (financial and emotional) that enabled Liz Gilbert to travel the world and “find herself,” it’d be equally easy for me to accept an offer to do the same.
TITLE: Eat, Pray, Love
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Gilbert
PAGES: 335 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Committed, The Last American Man
SORTA LIKE: Under the Tuscan Sun
FIRST LINE: ”I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”