Sunday, 1 April 2012
"Eat, Pray, Love," by Elizabeth Gilbert
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
I was given my copy by a work colleague who hated it; she had also been given the book by another work colleague who hated it. I have wanted to get the chance to read it ever since then. I trust their taste, and yet I have a couple of friends who love it - and I trust their taste too. It is a book that seems to polarise people (Mark Kermode - my second favourite Mark in the world - hated the film so much that he calls it "Eat, Pray, Love, Vomit"), so I was curious to find out how I would feel about it.
The opening of "Eat, Pray, Love" finds Elizabeth Gilbert desperately unhappy, in a marriage that stultifies her, ostensibly trying to start a family but actually thanking God for her every period. After an agony of soul-searching, which finds her near-suicidal, she leaves her husband and immediately jumps into another misguided and unsuitable relationship. When this also collapses, she has to learn how to be independent. Her passion in life is travelling, and circumstances come together - largely helped by a book deal - to allow her to spend 4 months of pleasure in Italy, 4 months of spiritual retreat at an ashram in India and 4 months in Bali trying to find a way to combine the two.
I know that one person who hated the book disliked her authorial voice, and thought her actions selfish. I don't have that problem. I found her voice engaging - she writes well, and wears her learning lightly - and, although I have had blessedly few periods of unhappiness in my life, those that I have had taught me that there can be times when you need to make a choice that might outwardly seem selfish in order to preserve your own mental health. I would have had more of an issue with her life choices if she had shown divorce to be an easy option - she leaves her husband after much agonising, and the divorce is traumatic - or if she hadn't acknowledged what her body and mind were telling her and had a child she didn't want because it was expected of her.
I have another theory regarding what divides opinion about this book: some of the people I know who like this book have a spiritual/religious dimension to their lives which, to my knowledge, those who disliked it don't have. This is, after all, a book about a spiritual journey as much as, if not more than, her physical journey. As a wild generalisation, if you are aware that you are seeking something that is missing in your life; if you are dissatisfied with an area of your life and wish to change it, then you might find that you recognise something of yourself in her quest. The "grass is always greener" paradigm is a fundamental condition of human nature: no matter what blessings a person has, the quest for something more / different is common to many of us. I have to say though - as my husband was, I think, a little nervous that I was reading a book about a woman who leaves her husband and goes traveling - my marriage is one of the things that I wouldn't change.
As this is such a personal book, I do also have a personal response to one thing that she writes in passing. At the ashram she gathers a social circle around her, but a part of her wants to be a quiet girl at the back of the temple; a "shy girl with thick, dark hair." Speaking from the other side of the introvert/extrovert divide, I can tell Elizabeth Gilbert that the silence of a shy girl is less likely to be due to mystical peace and more likely to stem from social anxiety. The quiet girl at the back of the temple is probably envying your social confidence and the ease with which you attract friends: she probably has inner turmoil, just like you, and works hard for any peace she finds - it's just a different fight from yours. I don't understand wanting to be a shy girl. The thick, dark hair, however, I totally get.
I like travelogues, so I approached this book in that vein more than I did a memoir and, on that basis, I enjoyed joining Elizabeth Gilbert on her travels (although I like Venice more than she did). This is a book that comes with a lot of media hype and baggage - I gather her ex-husband at one point planned to retaliate with a book about his side of their marriage and divorce - and that public feud holds no interest for me. It also has to be said that her marriage and her divorce take up very little of the book; the majority is her travels and her mental / emotional recovery. As most of my money when I was younger was put into being a perpetual student, I traveled very little - so this was a nice opportunity for me to vicariously do some traveling and meet some interesting people. I didn't expect to like it, considering the mixed reactions I've heard, so I was pleasantly surprised.