Posted by: Nathan | August 2, 2009

Eat, Pray, yes; Love? Not so much

Somewhere around Lincoln, NE, my lovely wife and I finished “reading” (listening to) Elizabeth Gilbert’s renowned memoir Eat, Pray, Love. We had been enjoying it through our two recent trips back to the Midwest; there’s nothing like listening to a good book while you drive to kill time. Gilbert possesses an obvious talent at writing, and her journey (literal and figurative) is usually quite engaging. Indeed, the book has given me a lot to ruminate upon, especially spiritually. Thus, I was fully expecting to be wowed by the finish, but instead both J and I were disappointed. There is so much that is valuable in these pages (or CDs), but Gilbert leaves me to wonder what might have been. How do you evaluate a book that is wonderful 80% of the time but ends poorly?

So close to being amazing

So close to being amazing

If you’re unfamiliar with Eat, Pray, Love (EPL), let me catch you up. The book chronicles Gilbert’s yearlong journey from Italy to India to Indonesia (Bali) as she tries to figure out who she is and what to do with her life. She’s just come through a terrible divorce and a failed romance (different guys), and she needs to get a handle on herself. She decides to visit three different places that would help her work on specific characteristics of her life. She chooses Italy for its pleasure (especially culinary), India for its devotion, and Indonesia to find balance in her life.

One way to think about this book is to separate its different aspects and evaluate them individually. I think Gilbert would be on board with this idea because she clearly loves overt structure. The book is one third travel writing, one third spiritual odyssey, and one third autobiography.

It should come as no surprise to those who know me that the travel element of the book is my favorite. I haven’t traveled much, and I love hearing about all these different places she visits. However, my reasons for choosing the travel writing aspect of the book as my favorite extend beyond my desire to see the world; Gilbert is an extremely gifted travel author. She is skilled at making places come alive and uses imagery and description effectively and wonderfully. Listening to the book turned out to be a visual experience as well as an auditory one.

The second best facet of EPL in my view was her spiritual journey. As a Christian, it was constantly fascinating to see how Gilbert goes about her search for God, where she finds Him, and where she doesn’t. Gilbert’s faith exists outside of all the standard world religions, but she focuses mostly on Asian practices, especially meditation, to get where she’s going. She has a lot of prophetic dreams, and those were compelling. She definitely causes me to re-evaluate much of my assumptions regarding other belief systems; that needed to happen. However, Gilbert never really gets to her desired destination, i.e. close to God. She has amazing visions, yes, and who am I to say they aren’t real? Still, she seeks God on her own terms in her own ways, and that goes only so far. Also, she is surrounded on this journey by those who ceaselessly tell her the classic religious lie, “All religions are basically the same. They’re just different paths to the same end.” No. I think Gilbert proves my point by how her book ends.

The least interesting aspect of the book, for me, was the author’s personal life. Yes, it is a memoir, so I expected a good dose of Gilbert’s life to be in these pages. However, she comes off as self-obsessed after a while. I grew tired of her whining about how awful her divorce was (that would be the divorce she asked for) and how torn up she is that “David” and she can’t get along. As her travels progress, she moves beyond these emotional issues only to pick up other ones down the line. I get the feeling that Elizabeth Gilbert is a messy person–one who can’t help but immerse herself in drama wherever she goes.

I’m making EPL out to be a terrible book, which it is not, so let me talk about some of its many laudable aspects. Let me reiterate that Gilbert is a gifted author; she is obviously made to write. Her prose is always evocative, descriptive, and arranged well. She knows what she’s doing. Listening to her perform her own book is also a joy. She brings out all of the various accents of the friends she makes on her trip, from the Italian English spoken by Giovanni, to the Southern drawl of Richard from Texas, to the broken English of Ketut Liyer in Bali. It is a good choice for a book to listen to.

Reading EPL is an entrancing experience. Gilbert is eager and able to transport you to the places she goes, make you feel how she feels, and craft her experiences such that they are meaningful to all that hear about them. There is a lot of light and wisdom in this book. I was constantly being shown how close-minded I can be regarding other people–a hateful characteristic, indeed. The author is right about a lot of things: make space for God in your life, pursue things that are meaningful, friends can be found anywhere, and a happiness requires hard work. I profited a lot from this read.

Okay, let’s talk about selfishness. Apparently, Gilbert gets accused of being selfish a lot as a consequence of writing this book. After all, she breaks off her marriage and then spends pages complaining about how much it hurts. She then sends herself on a round-the-world journey doing things she wants to do and staying at places she wants to be in order to learn about…herself. This issue must be raised a lot because the author responds to it on her website. She argues that going on her journey was valuable because by becoming a better person, she is now less of a burden on those around her: “Saving my own life (through therapy, medication, prayer and–most of all–travel) was something I did for my own benefit, yes, but I can’t help but think that it was ultimately also a little bit of community service.” I like this idea, but I’m not entirely persuaded.

Overall, this is a good read, and I guess I’d recommend it; I definitely won’t tell people not to read it. I asked J if she’d listen through it again, and she said at least the first two sections (Italy and India) are worthy of more time; I agree. I’m not certain that I’d put myself through the entirety of emotional experience of this book again, though. 3.5 stars. And I definitely plan to eat at Pizzeria da Michele.

For those who want to know what I disliked so much about the finish of EPL, read on (SPOILERS AHEAD):Gilbert travels all over the place indulging and improving herself ; I bought into the validity of her pursuit of God and self-improvement until we get to the last section of the book where she decides to hook up with a rich Brazilian and try to live life on four continents. Worse, whom does she credit for her transformation and better life? Others? Her amazing opportunity most will never get? God? Nope, herself. She gives the ol’ “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps” line, and trots off into the sunset. You wonder why I’m skeptical of the value of her spirituality? God grants her all kinds of grace and an unthinkable opportunity to go to these places and write this book, and she ends it by congratulating herself.

I was ready to gush about how great this book is. The self-focused ending made me re-evaluate the entire book.

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