Eat, Pray,Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia. New York: Penguin, 2007.
Review (c) 2013, Davd
I acquired this book as i acquire many books, at the Public Library table where they sell off books deleted from their collection and books donated by the public. One afternoon late in November, i found and bought Robert Bly’s Iron John in hardcover, and Eat, Pray, Love in paperback. Appropriate, that seemed, because i expected to read Iron John more times over, and loan it out more often … but as a book to review, Eat, Pray, Love has a large public and specifically a large Feminist following; and merits some comment for that reason. Iron John is a more complex book whose theme is myths in the sense of guiding cultural stories, and merits re-reading, reflection, and perhaps even research into those myths: A larger, more scholarly task that will take so long i won’t forecast when [nor even promise that] a review might be done until it is.)
Eat, Pray, Love is the account of a “terminate the marriage, have a lot of fun, do some serious contemplation too, and find herself” experience, by a woman who was a successful writer before the experience began1. It is charmingly and fluently well written, as a successful writer’s book ought to be (Ms. Gilbert’s first published book appeared ten years earlier, and she refers to being sent from New York to Australia and Indonesia by publishers, at their expense.) She confesses that she has been selfish and self-indulgent in some of the things it relates; she does not claim to be perfect or even saintly (though she does write that despite her self-indulgent side, she has been blessed with at least some of the joys of sainthood); and she relates a tale which most readers, however good Feminists they might be, should not seek to imitate.
Warning—mine, not necessarily hers—this is the story of a year in the life of one of the most fortunate women on the planet. Most of you won’t be that lucky, so don’t try. There are also spiritual concerns for those who are Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.
Specifically, Eat, Pray, Love is divided into 108 numbered vignettes2: 1-36 for Italy, where Ms. Gilbert learns to get-by speaking Italian and eats enough of the best food she can find to gain 23 pounds [p. 110]; 37-72 for India, where she “prays” following the ways and customs of a Yogi Ashram; and 73-108 for Indonesia3, where she coaches a native guru’s English, helps another healer get herself a house, and connects erotically with a handsome Brazilian gem dealer. Actually, some of the Italy vignettes relate the story of her divorce and introduce her non-Christian [spirituality?]; so Eat gets a little less treatment than Pray and Love. All the sections end in delighted success… for Elizabeth Gilbert, as she writes it anyway.
Tempting, that, if one were a woman with an imperfect marriage—and what marriage (what job? what friendship or business or project?) is perfect?
But what about the husband she left? In vignette 2, she follows four repetitions of I don’t want to be married anymore [italics hers], with an eloquent but [imho, conveniently self-serving] refusal to write anything about the reasons she left him; in vignettes 5 and 9 she informs the reader how difficult the divorce was—and as i read these three main references to the end of her marriage, they seemed to show the writer to be self-absorbed. There’s not much concern there for the well-being of her husband or the lover she took up with upon (or was it while?) leaving her husband.
That lack of concern for those men’s well-being—Ms. G. does seem to like men [which some Feminists don't!] but on her terms rather than terms of fellow-feeling and consideration—meant to me, that the writer was somehow not yet fully human, at least, not in relation to those two men; and though i do write as a man who is aware the sexes differ, i can name women whose acts and words showed they cared about and seriously inconvenienced themselves for the well-being of men they knew: My sister and grandmother, for instance.
(Still, loving one’s friends “as oneself” might be a male teaching more than a female; it might even be a reason Jesus was born male and had men for his disciples. Perhaps i should return to that topic in a later blog.)
It seemed before i ever opened the book, from what men wrote in the comments on “androsphere” websites, that this is an easy book for women to mis-use. When i had read the beginning and the end, and skimmed some of the middle, it seemed rather obvious why: This is a Princess Story4. Elizabeth Gilbert is a Princess, of the celebrity sort. The obvious mis-use of a Princess Story is to try to imitate the Princess, expecting to win the same good fortune. Tucked away early in Eat, Pray, Love is a warning that few will.
Ms. Gilbert is a skilled and entertaining writer, but a very poor bet as someone to imitate beyond working to improve one’s writing. As her first face-to-face guru, a ninth-generation Balinese medicine-man named Ketut, told her, “You have more good luck than anyone I’ve ever met” [p. 27] … and this particular Balinese medicine-man had met hundreds of foreigners, as well as even more fellow Balinese.
Those women readers who have a roughly average amount of good luck (the great majority), as well as the relatively unlucky, undertake to imitate her at their peril. Resist that temptation! The Princess Syndrome may seem to have paid off for one tall, blonde, exceptionally lucky New York writer; it very seldom pays off for average women.
Consider the divorce, whose costs are acknowledged but quite briefly relative to the length of the book… and in a way that partakes both of Princess and of “sex role reversal”. Ms. Gilbert was the high-earning spouse [p 11], and to leave the marriage, she paid more than most low-earning spouses could afford… and then, as the Balinese medicine-man predicted, got so much money to write about her year in three far-flung parts of the world, that she could afford to go there: Not quite becoming chatelaine of the Palace, perhaps, but far more than average women have any business expecting. Gilbert’s adventure is appropriate only for the very well funded.
Was she morally justified in abandoning her marriage, living with another man, then divorcing and taking off on a year of Princess adventuring? By Abrahamic morality—the morality of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—No. By Feminist morality—if that’s not an oxymoron—the comments on men’s websites seem to observe that she was self-justified (“let your feelings be your guide” instead of the conscience men are admonished to honour and women used to be.5) Perhaps the marriage was a mistake—but when societies stand on strong philosophical foundations, keeping promises one might more wisely not have made, is an honourable duty: Those who live well while keeping such promises are heroes; those who fail while keeping such promises are tragic heroes; those who evade their promises are unworthy of further trust.
(What, then, of her spiritual delights in India? Two Christian teachings come quickly to mind. First, the Devil can masquerade as an “angel of light” [II Cor 11:14]; perhaps she was deceived. Second, our Creator is forgiving and merciful [Islam also prays often to “Allah .. the merciful”]; perhaps her “pray” months were blessed as the fruits of repentance and merciful blessings followed. Perhaps there could be another reason i did not think of. But it is sad—and also befits a Princess story—that we do not know from what is in the book.)
That Ms. G. was paid handsomely to write this book, may perhaps be a sign of societal decadence… as may the facts that it became a “best-seller”—and has seen much mis-use, according to the comments on men’s websites.
As i picked this book up from the sale-table it seemed to me for a moment that the subtitle read “One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indiana.” I would have been more impressed if that had been true. For an American woman to settle into a prosaic farm-and-industrial state of her home country and practice a faith among her homely countrymen, would be a better achievement for me—and ordinary folks generally—to honour in times of decreasing affluence; than for her to enjoy being a world-traveller after rejecting an upper-middle-class suburban marriage (but are Princess Stories ever realistic?)
I take no issue with the title per se: Eat, Pray, and Love are good things to do—with discipline, humility, modesty—and especially fidelity. We all need to Eat, for sustenance of course, and it is reasonable to expect to eat also for enjoyment if you cook well or swap chores with a good cook. To stay healthy, eat prudently; and don’t expect great food adventures as your due.
Pray, i suggest, mainly by listening for guidance rather than making demands. Remember that God spelled backwards is dog, and y’know, there seems to be some validity to that quirk of English: The way we love our dogs may indeed be an indication [not an exact duplicate] of Divine love for humans. Good dogs do beg—but not promiscuously, and they accept discipline, and they are faithful.
Love, faithfully (and don’t put eros in first place.) Which means, which entails, valuing the beloved’s well-being as much as your own; or if you’re merely human, at least half as much and preferably
almost as much. I do not know how one can love in that sense while getting a divorce she wants and he doesn’t, while saying in deeds that a lifetime promise she made has become a lie, because she really doesn’t want to keep it. If a promise means what the word says, then “really doesn’t want to keep it” isn’t good enough reason.
Perhaps i should wind-down this review with the story of a promise kept, to a faithful dog. George was 11 years old, and animals given to Shelters at so old an age are very often “put down”. I had sold the home where we had lived since George was 8 weeks old and my son Erik brought him home, then taken George with me on a two-month pilgrimage; and on return, started on a house-sharing project with the help of a church—which help turned out to be too little to get a house to share by late November. For the same reasons that had brought me a good price for the house and land i sold, rental dwellings which a big dog could share cost well over $1,000. per month. The most appealing forest land i could afford, though, was located east of the Prairies; we were in B.C. Considering only myself, i could have rented a small apartment for much less than $1000, and waited for Spring—but George wasn’t welcome in such apartments.
I drove George across Canada in December, rather than turn him over to a shelter that would more likely kill than shelter him—because his life depended on me, and i valued his life and his company that much. To tell you the truth, i would not have imposed on George, the burden of being ‘adopted’ by strangers at that age, nor happily have lived in an apartment without him: We had done too much, too well, together. (Can a society that values marriage less than i valued an old dog, long survive?)
We had a bad wreck going off an icy curve, but we got ourselves and a trailer full of goods to the destination. He had two good years after we arrived, before his body failed him; and his last several months he and i trained Fritz, then a pup and now another impressive garde-travail and companion. George’s body is buried next to a young apple tree that is likely to make good cider, and i bless his grave whenever i walk by.
My own kitchen is not as good as the best ones in Italy, but i cook rather well, and i am content. My prayer garden is smaller and less lush than that ashram in India, i suppose; but my prayer-life there goes well, and i am content. I have acknowledged before preachers, priests and neighbours that i will finish my life without erotic companionship, and i am content with asexual philios-love, fidelity for fidelity.
I cannot judge Elizabeth Gilbert’s life, nor really, even her book—only assess, for i too am merely human—and i can assess only the book, which recounts but a few percent of the life. For us men, it seems to repeat the warning—beware interdependence with women who think they are Princesses. For women, i suggest a more probabilistic warning—beware emulating the likes of the author, she is one of a fortunate, tiny minority6. The writing is charmingly fluent, but factually, Gilbert’s is the story of an almost impossibly lucky woman—just as that Balinese medicine-man said.
1. “In advance,” she writes on p. 35, “my publisher has purchased the book I shall write about my travels.” Those of us who are not already successful writers in the crass money sense, cannot expect the like.
2. Literally, states the dictionary nearest this machine, a vignette is an ornamental depiction of vine leaves or “any small photographic portrait.” I have seen the word used before for written depictions. Many of the 108 sections of the book which i call “vignettes” are invitations to visualize; and at an average of just over three pages per vignette, they definitely are small … hence the choice.
3. Specifically, Bali, which as she details in vignette 76, is quite atypical of Indonesia: “… a tiny Hindu island in the middle of … the most populous Muslim nation on earth.”
4. The first paragraph of special interest in The Princess Syndrome post, is the third, which reads, “Now and then, in folklore and in ‘the media’, a pretty girl becomes a Princess; and those rare cases encourage others to aspire. So do celebrities who are ‘treated royally’, many of whom come from fairly ordinary origins; and so do folk tales.” Ms. Gilbert, from the text, is (or is close to being) a celebrity from fairly ordinary origins.
5. On p. 101, for instance, she expresses sympathy with a Venetian single mother’s affairs, even with married men.
6. If you are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, beware also the spiritual “rotten fruits” of promises broken, and the deceit of the Evil One, who has no gender and can appear as male or female.