I’m going to go with the classic good-bad-ugly format for this review, with an added caveat to open.
This book excites a lot of ideological debate. These are my views, not those of Nevins Library, and they’re not meant to be taken as a personal attack on a lifestyle, a person, or a set of beliefs. What I write here is nothing more or less than my opinion of a piece of popular literature.
OK. On to the review!
Eat, Pray, Love is famous enough that most people are familiar with the basic concept: Elizabeth Gilbert goes around the world to enjoy good food, spend time on her spiritual development, and fall in love. Falling in love isn’t explicitly part of the plan, but she does have in mind the idea that she’ll get over her divorce and most recent heartbreak by spending a year away from New York.
Anyone who has ever read Gilbert knows that she’s an exceptional writer. Very, very talented. This particular book has been polished until the prose gleams. Her style is both accessible and beautiful, a difficult balance to strike under any circumstances. She’s brave in what she reveals about herself, too; mental illness is a stigma that can end careers. Not that I think that her multi-million-copy-selling memoir poses a huge risk to her ambitions in this case, but it bears mention nonetheless.
There’s also great charm in the ability to live vicariously through Gilbert as she hops from Italy to India to Indonesia. Frankly, who has the time to take a year off and travel? (Or, for that matter, the funds?) Gilbert got lucky and went. It’s fun to watch.
Indonesia gets to be a little much, and after a while, it’s not clear what she’s doing there. As far as finding a balance, it seems like she could have done just as much in New York, where pleasure and asceticism are both available and there are no shortage of good-hearted but poor single mothers whose lives would be improved through Gilbert’s financial largesse. Why go to Indonesia? Maybe to round out the year-long trip. Like a lot of the rest of the book, it seems a little too tailored to count as a real journey toward self-realization. The word padding comes to mind. I have to admit that I eventually listened to Indonesia at double speed because I couldn’t stand the meandering. But if you pull back and look at it from a distance, the whole book is about meandering, so there you go. Other literary tastes probably wouldn’t have found this so bothersome. I blame my plot-driven upbringing.
Worthier critics than I have already noticed that Gilbert seems unaware of how she comes across, and I’d echo that. As she moves through India and Indonesia, the people around her seem to be a kind of cultural backdrop, conscripted into her enlightenment experience because…New York isn’t exotic enough? There’s definitely some objectification of the Other going on here, and it enters uncomfortable territory several times. My favorite example: An Indian girl, lamenting the fact that she’ll probably find herself married against her will, wails to Gilbert that she wants “to live in Hawaii.” The book presents this scene without commentary. In a place where Gilbert is supposed to be looking deep, why didn’t the author plumb the depths of the *reason* she had to go to a third-world country for enlightenment that most of the locals couldn’t hope to afford? Is that kind of experience even valid, if the only people who can indulge are from outside of its home culture? Or, if these questions are too threatening to the book’s premise, could she have at least explored the dynamic between herself, a globe-trotter who will quite soon return to her mundane post-divorce troubles in New York City, and this kid, her family, her neighbors and her town, all of whom will carry on in, and sometimes suffer at the hands of, the culture from which Gilbert has just cherry-picked a single, rarefied religious experience? I’ve known a couple people who traveled to find themselves and instead found that seeing the world renewed their sense of appreciation for the good things that they had. Gilbert never struck me as grateful in this way. She struck me as oblivious to her own good fortune. It made me squirm.
Gilbert has said that she wrote Eat, Pray, Love for herself, not her critics. I take umbrage with this – she got an advance, so she knew that someone other than herself would consider this book a marketable product. But there also stands the fact that since the book’s success, she’s become an icon of the dreams of self-discovery and travel harbored by many American women. She carries on the tradition of hero’s journey, participates in it and uses its power. I found that she doesn’t use it particularly well. Not in any kind of pointedly bad or ill-intentioned way, of course – at the end of the day, this is a pretty benign book, despite Gilbert’s lack of self-awareness. But also not for anything particularly great, or profound, or even really thought-provoking.
Chasing Matisse: a year in France living my dream by James Morgan
Blue Latitudes: boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before by Tony Horwitz
Big Magic: creative living beyond fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts
Under the Tuscan Sun starring Diane Lane
Wild starring Reese Witherspoon