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June 10th at 3:07pm
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I get it.
No more than ten pages into Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love (the title is written interchangeably with commas and without), I understood why the book was a bestseller in 2006, and then, in 2010, produced as a movie starring Julia Roberts.
Background on this series is here.
It rests on a powerful formula in contemporary Western art: women pushing back against "supposed to" and "should." As in, women are supposed to look a certain way. They should have kids by a given age. They're supposed to be happy with X, Y, and Z. And so on.
As the reader, it's easy to feel proud of her - even when, on her last night in India, she makes out with a tree.
When they finally throw up their hands and call bullshit - on themselves, on men, on society, on the absurdity of life - it creates a special kind of catharsis, and, as long as it's done right, that emotional and psychological unfolding is catnip.
There's more to Eat Pray Love, of course.
"I have always felt," Gilbert says, "ever since I was sixteen years old and first went to Russia with my saved-up babysitting money, that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice." And so she goes to Italy, India, and Bali, learning languages, visiting towns, meditating, and making friends.
In so many ways, it's a lovely travel memoir. But the reason you heard of it in 2006 or 2010? The catnip.
An Imposition of Form
The introduction is entitled, How This Book Works, or the 109th Bead.
A japamala, or string of prayer beads used in many faiths, is 108 beads long, and each (usually brief) chapter of Eat Pray Love represents a bead. Since Gilbert visits three countries, each segment of her trip has 36 chapters.
This structure provides a metaphorical framework for the protagonist's journey along a spiritual path, but also provides objective Cartesian order to the messier, subjective content.
And It Opens with a Mess
From the first sentence - "I wish Giovanni would kiss me" - the reader plunges into the protagonist's turbulent world, one requiring time and space to heal through food, prayer - and abstinence.
Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea. To begin with, Giovanni is ten years younger than I am, and - like most Italian guys in their twenties - he still lives with his mother. These facts alone make him an unlikely romantic partner for me, given that I am a professional American woman in my mid-thirties, who has just come through a failed marriage and a devastating, interminable divorce, followed immediately by a passionate love affair that ended in sickening heartbreak. This loss upon loss has left me feeling sad and brittle and about seven thousand years old. Purely as a matter of principle I wouldn’t inflict my sorry, busted-up old self on the lovely, unsullied Giovanni. Not to mention that I have finally arrived at that age where a woman starts to question whether the wisest way to get over the loss of one beautiful brown-eyed young man is indeed to promptly invite another one into her bed. This is why I have been alone for many months now. This is why, in fact, I have decided to spend this entire year in celibacy.
If Gilbert doesn't have the immediate attention of every woman age thirty and up after this paragraph, she's never going to. It's a clarion call, a howitzer shot from the top of a hill, a set of flares, a bonfire, and - why the hell not - a box of sparklers.
Life has punched me in the gut, the modern world can be awful, and I haven't helped matters. I'm a wreck, so I'm going to step back, do some traveling, and try to get my head right.
In its simplest form, that's Eat Pray Love.
The Eat Part
Gilbert goes to Rome to learn Italian and to eat. In fact, she eats so much that she has to buy new clothes. She also flirts with handsome men, watches soccer, and befriends a man named, yes, Luca Spaghetti.
She spends time alone and reads frequently. She performs not insignificant acts of kindness.
She travels, too - Florence, Bologna, Venice, Naples. She's particularly fond of Sicily: its historical importance, its people, and its cuisine. At one point, she asks "a sleepy policeman" in Taormina where the best food in town is. "He gives me one of the greatest things anyone can ever give me in life - a tiny piece of paper with the name of an obscure restaurant written on it, ... [and] a hand-drawn map."
For most of the section in Italy, though, Gilbert dissects. She looks back on her relationships. She explains the quirks of life in Rome. She acknowledges her struggles with the language. She ponders the question of having children - or, in her case, not having them.
Gilbert writes in a clear, commonsensical way. Her tone is neither academic, nor intellectual, nor elevated; it's transparent and conversational with the occasional lovely turn of phrase. The emotional inventory performed in such a tone of voice, delivered via short chapters which allow readers to reset and breathe, resonates as genuine and confiding.
The Pray Part
Gilbert goes almost immediately to India after her four months in Italy, shifting her focus from the physical to the spiritual.
We learn about her guru and the ashram where she stays, a friend named "Richard from Texas," her thoughts about God, and her struggles with the mind, meditation, and a chant called the Gurugita.
Sensual Italy, spiritual India. Blended Indonesia?
She is far better acquainted with Eastern spirituality and practice than the average Westerner, and she relays some of that knowledge to the reader. Many of the passages - spiritual and esoteric, bordering on the intellectual - recall Janwillem Van de Wetering's The Empty Mirror and A Glimpse of Nothingness .
Gilbert also describes an intensely spiritual experience where she connects with, well... God's energy. Such an event is inadequately served by everyday, non-lyrical language - the main tool in Gilbert's linguistic arsenal - which explains why the passage feels superficial.
Another disappointment of this section is that we don't learn as much about India as we do of Italy (and, later, Bali). The sense of place, understandably, centers around the ashram more so than the host country.
Despite those two minor issues, Gilbert is, at the end of her stay in India, happier and healthier than ever before. It's easy to feel proud of her - even when, on her last night in India, she makes out with a tree. "I kissed that tree with all my heart," she admits.
The Love Part
Sensual Italy, spiritual India.
Would Gilbert's time in Bali emerge as a synthesis of her two previous stays? Physical and sensual without being hedonistic, and... emotionally and psychologically healthy, perhaps with less meditation?
Yep. Exactly that.
- I hope it's an easy read, because I only have ten minutes per day to devote to a book.
- We'll see if you're right about women loving it.
Gilbert is more spiritually mature in Bali. She regularly visits a medicine man named Ketut Liyer, helping him with English and listening to his teachings. She spends time alone and reads frequently. She performs not insignificant acts of kindness.
And she falls in love with a Brazilian man named Felipe - but it takes time. She doesn't rush in. Once they finally do become a couple, they go for a trip to the small island of Gili Meno and the book ends.
Very Well Done
So much about Eat Pray Love is just right. The concept, execution, pacing, tone, and resolution - healed, contented heroine gets the good man - all hit the mark.
From the first sentence, the reader plunges into the protagonist's turbulent world, one requiring time and space to heal through food, prayer - and abstinence.
Some readers may find it too emotional - too open, too inquiring - but Eat Pray Love is an enjoyable read using travel as the vehicle for healing, growth, and the stress-eating of pizza.
Click here to list the 44 Reviews which have already been published.
Red Dust 6/30/2021
Eat Pray Love 6/10/2021
Voyage au Brésil 5/16/2021
Postcard: Lake Tahoe 4/30/2021
Baedeker's United States 4/5/2021
To Shake the Sleeping Self 3/7/2021
The Sex Lives of Cannibals 2/17/2021
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