Sunday, June 16, 2013

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

A spiritual journey, accented with upscale details

Eat, Pray, Love is a memoir, although it’s almost a “memoir in a can.” The structure of the book is preconceived, made to order -- nothing out of the ordinary had happened to Elizabeth Gilbert before she decided to have some experiences and write a book about them.  Feeling deeply depressed at the end of her marriage, she comes up with a book proposal, gets a big advance, travels to three different countries, undergoes three different types of instruction, and then writes the book.   A cold blooded description like this might sound as if I hated it. Anyway, I loved it.  Elizabeth Gilbert is a delightful non didactic writer, and the prose is engaging and readable. Technically this book is a travelogue: four months in Italy, four months in India, four months in Indonesia.

A successful memoir needs three essential things – talented writing, an interesting story with high stakes, but ideally there should be a spiritual transformation, a redemption, a change. Otherwise, what’s the educational point of the interesting story? In this case, the shocking experience is Gilbert’s realization that, unlike what she communicated to her husband (and probably to herself), she does NOT want to have a baby and a white picket fence and an affluent suburban American life. Her husband is disbelieving at first, then angry.  He demands penitence and he demands money.  To recover from this battle, she takes a self designed world tour.

A travelogue allows the reader to enjoy a descriptive and historical account of a foreign land. We learn something, we revel in the alien sensuality of another world, but at the same time there’s an underlying comfort, a quiet security – thank God I’m in the US, home of the air conditioned flush toilet and twenty four hour hot coffee. Gilbert visits Italy where she learns to speak rudimentary Italian and eats incredible pizza. She visits her ashram in India where she chants, eats no meat, and occasionally glimpses Nirvana. Finally, she goes, almost on a whim, to Bali, where she rides her bike, studies with a medicine man, and meets a grizzled Brazilian, who offers her the calm she is looking for. He can repair her heart. Perhaps the ending is too neat, but it didn’t feel that way.

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