As 2010 drew to a close, the memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” crossed into its 200th week on the New York Times Bestseller List – thanks, in part, to the golden touch of Oprah’s Book Club. It was also turned into a movie, which grossed over $80 million at the box office as a summer chick flick starring Julia Roberts’ toothy grin.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the plot, it goes something like this: Woman is unhappy in her marriage and gets divorced. Woman needs some serious perspective and takes a year-long trip around the world (woman is also a well-paid writer). Woman eats carbs in Italy, connects with her spiritual side at an ashram in India, and finds love again thanks to an elderly healer in Indonesia.
If you’re thinking that the concept of eating pasta in Italy and meditating in India doesn’t sound especially astounding or revelatory, well, you’re right. For better or worse, the countries where Gilbert travels and the people in them are backdrops in a larger drama of self-discovery that borders on self-indulgence.
But at book clubs, cocktail parties and coffee shops across America, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ has crept into the space that ‘Sex and the City’ has filled for years, reigniting one of the great feminist debates of our time: “Is it really a story of empowerment if a woman goes from one man to another in her quest for self-discovery?”
Regardless of how you feel about Gilbert, she’s grappling with an emotional hot-button issue – that is, struggling to reconcile feminism with hopeless romanticism; and what society expects of women with what a woman wants for herself. She’s certainly not the first person to tap into this – it hearkens back to controversial female protagonists in Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” and Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours”.
A funny thing happens, though, when a book becomes as popular as “Eat, Pray, Love”. It becomes simultaneously loved and hated. Why is that?
In the case of “Eat, Pray, Love”, Elizabeth Gilbert’s story of self-discovery – however self-indulgent you may find it – is a personal journey. Yet over time, perhaps because most readers can relate to the subject matter on a personal level, Gilbert’s story somehow came to be seen as prescriptive or even representative of all single women in their 30s.
This isn’t Gilbert’s fault. In fact, you see a similar phenomenon with Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” or Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” being turned into “quintessential” stories about the Asian- and Indian American communities – both of whom, in reality, encompass an extremely diverse set of people and experiences. When a certain point-of-view is under-represented in the mainstream, people tend to lionize the strongest (and perhaps loudest) of these voices.
Today, some women idolize “Eat, Pray, Love” so much that they’re trying to experience the journey for themselves – literally. Following the movie, there was an increase in women retracing Gilbert’s steps through Italy, India and Indonesia.
For a moment, let’s put aside the fact that following somebody else’s journey completely misses the point of self-discovery. It’s clear that Gilbert hit a nerve – inspiring some women and offending others with her brand of travel and introspection.
When it comes to traveling, Gilbert often gets so lost in her own perspective that she misses the complex world bustling around her. Each country gets reduced to a single word (Italy is ‘eat,’ for example). Sure, it’s a good literary device, but it’s a shame India gets reduced to “pray” as Gilbert holes up in an ashram for months without seeing any of the country. It feels like a metaphor for the book as a whole.
I’ve come across plenty of other criticisms – Gilbert treats the people she meets like supporting characters in her life play; she sweeps in and tries to solve their problems with deep pockets but without deep understanding; she boxes herself into ashrams and expat communities so she doesn’t have to make sense of developing countries.
I can understand these criticisms. But I also believe we’ll never know Gilbert’s true experience of Italy, India and Indonesia – or what might’ve been if she hadn’t been writing a book. Would the people and places she encountered along the way still seem like the setting, characters, and plot in a carefully-wrought story?
Then again, perhaps that’s just the beast that comes with writing a personal memoir – trying to fit your dynamic relationships and experiences into a narrative that ties up all your loose ends and turns the beautiful mess of life into a neat little package for someone else to unwrap and examine.