Saturday, May 05, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love, Final

by Elizabeth Gilbert
Penguin Group / 2006

I have another confession to make. I finished Eat, Pray, Love a week ago. This time I have no excuse for not writing this post long ago. I meant to…but yeah. In my defense, what more can I say about a book that has already been reviewed and discussed extensively? The only thing I can say is that the praise heaped upon this book is well-deserved. Sometimes, books are so over-hyped that by the time you get to them, while you may have enjoyed it (if you’re lucky), you come away feeling as if you must have missed something, because you’re saying to yourself as you turn the last page, “What was all the fuss about again?”

I can say with all honesty that is not the case with Eat, Pray, Love. In so many words, it’s moving, inspiring, funny, educational, and altogether enjoyable. Some have called Ms. Gilbert self-indulgent or just plain old self-centered. I, however, think that the act of writing a memoir is inherently self-centered. Who else would write a book under the assumption that their lives and unique experiences are worthy of print and of interest to millions of readers? But what keeps this inherent self-centeredness from being obnoxious and off-putting is an author’s ability to reveal the universal within the particular. All writers aren’t capable of this; Ms. Gilbert is.

One night, alone on the bathroom floor Gilbert realizes that she doesn’t want the life she is living; she doesn’t want to be married, she doesn’t want to have children, she doesn’t want to deny her own unhappiness any longer:

It was a cold November, around three o’clock in the morning. My husband was sleeping in our bed. I was hiding in the bathroom for something like the forty-seventh consecutive night, and – just as during all those nights before – I was sobbing. Sobbing so hard, in fact, that a great lake of tears and snot was spreading before me on the bathroom tiles, a veritable Lake of Inferior (if you will) of all my shame and fear and grief. I don’t want to be married anymore.

So “seven difficult months later” she leaves her husband and proceeds to not only spend the next year going through a very messy and ugly divorce, but also gets involved in an emotionally unhealthy relationship with another man. Naturally, after the divorce is finalized and after she has extricated herself from her other poisonous relationship (kind of), she finds herself lower physically, mentally, and spiritually than she was when she was sobbing on the bathroom floor. So, Ms. Gilbert does what many of us only wish we could do: she takes a break from her life and packs herself up to spend a year abroad – three months in Italy, India, and Indonesia, consecutively.

What follows is one of the best travelogues I’ve read in a very long time, and not because Italy is my number one choice for Places I Have to Visit Before I Die. Gilbert takes a journey to put the pieces of herself back together again, and oh what a revealing, occasionally heartbreaking, and frequently funny journey it is. Much has been made about the food in Eat, Pray, Love for very good reason. On her pizza experience in Naples, home of the best pizza in the world, Gilbert writes:
The dough, it takes me half my meal to figure out, tastes more like Indian nan than like any pizza dough I ever tried. It’s soft and chewy and yielding, but incredibly thin. I always thought we only had two choices in our lives when it came to pizza crust – thin and crispy, or thick and doughy. How was I to have known there could be a crust in this world that was thick and doughy? Holy of holies! Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yummy, chewy, salty pizza paradise.

Take it from me, you don’t want to read this passage on an empty stomach. In fact, I’d recommend skipping the entire Italian section all-together if you’re hungry. It’s not all about food but there’s enough food mentioned that you might damage its pages with puddles of drool.

But food is primarily the subject of only a third of the book. “India” is dedicated to her quest for spirituality. And while I expected to like this section the least (an entire three months spent in an Indian ashram versus three months exploring Italy?) I actually liked it the most. I found her personal revelations to be honest without being oppressively didactic. And we get to meet Richard from Texas, a man who, if this weren’t a memoir, you’d swear could only exist within the pages of a book.

The final section, Indonesia, is such a romantic fairy-tale – beautiful, caring man and all – that you have to wonder if she really did make all this up. Can one person’s life really change so dramatically and luckily in the space of one year? Gilbert anticipates such criticism by asking and answering it herself:
And, yes, I cannot help but notice that I am sailing to this pretty little tropical island with my Brazilian lover. Which is – I admit it! – an almost ludicrously fairy-tale ending to this story, like the page out of some housewife’s dream…Yet what keeps me from dissolving right now into a complete fairy-tale shimmer is this solid truth, a truth which has veritably built my bones over the last few years – I was not rescued by a prince; I was the administrator of my own rescue.

Indeed, that’s what Eat, Pray, Love is all about: looking for and finding the strength to save ourselves when no one else will or can. Which is why, when Gilbert sails “ludicrously” into the sunset, even as you’re choked up with jealousy, you can’t help but cheer. Gilbert reminds us that happiness is always possible; sometimes we just have to be courageous enough to actively look for it.

Threatening Iago...

This passage from Nigel Cliff's The Shakespeare Riots got a laugh-out-loud response from me:

Shakespeare was revered as a seer and a prophet, the master spirit of the Anglophone civilization, but his plays were also the stuff of log-cabin wisdom, the staple of schoolboy speechifying, and above all the stock-in-trade of popular drama. With one or at most two theaters in all but the biggest cities, men and women of every class went to the same shows and watched the same medley of "legitamate" plays and the skits and songs, farces and acrobatic dsplays that were served up as after-pieces or entr'actes, and no one thought of removing Shakespeare to a separate category called Culture...Some spectators became so wrapped up in the action that they forgot they were watching a play at all. In Albany a canal boatman was enraged by Iago's scheming: "You damned lying scoundrel!" he roared as he rose to his feet, "I would like to get hold of you after the show and wring your infernal neck!"

Ah, the good ole' days when art could move us so...