Thursday, October 18, 2007

Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert--Part I

Yet another book that everyone is reading. But the closer I came to reading it (the TBR list is particularly long right now), the more I ran into people who did not love it. Did not like it, to tell the truth. Which surprised me, given its ubiquitousness.

Although that is probably a good thing, because it lowered my expectations, and no matter how good a book is, most cannot live up to their positive press.

I am now one third of the way through, having traveled through Italy with Liz Gilbert, and I must say I see the strengths and the weaknesses I was warned about.

First off, I have a lot of sympathy with where Our Liz found herself at the beginning of the book. Turning 30 (more or less) is a hard thing, not because an age that ends with a "0" is a particularly traumatic thing in itself. Rather, 30 is an age when you start to truly cross over out of adolescence. During your twenties, in America, you are working your way through college, graduate school, first jobs. You have prepared yourself for a career and life with which you have very little visceral experience, but you have already invested heavily of time, energy and money.

Think about it--the standard American model is that you select a college when you are about 17--we have only just decided you can be trusted with a driver's license, then we throw you into a decision that will affect many many choices about the rest of your life. You select a major, you prepare yourself for what you think you want, often having little or no way to know is that is really the life you think it will be.

Liz Gilbert starts her book huddling on the bathroom floor, sobbing, suffocating in the life she has chosen. The plan was that she and her husband would spend their twenties being young, expecting that by the time they were 30, they would be ready to settle down, buy a big house, start a family. What happened was that at 30, Gilbert found that she wasn't ready. She had the husband, she had the big house, she had the life she thought she would want at 30.

Only problem was that she didn't want it.

And it was a physical rejection she experienced. Her body wouldn't let her sleep, wouldn't let her breath between sobs. She was desperately unhappy, and she truly couldn't explain why. She had a wonderful life, a life a lot of women would give significant body parts to have. Why wouldn't she want that life?

But these things are not logical, and cannot be explained. And they cause a lot of pain. She went through a lot of pain herself before she even began to understand what it was she wanted; then the pain started to spread, and her husband got hurt as well.

It wasn't his fault, you know. They both made this plan, and it was a good plan for him. Nothing had changed to make it a bad plan--it was just that his wife didn't want it any more. And how can that feel? You were together, on a life path, and then suddenly you weren't. And his hurt made him mean, just as it made her miserable and desperate.

She didn't want to hurt him, but the only way NOT to hurt him was to push herself forward into a life she desperately didn't want. There are no good choices in that situation, and I have a lot of sympathy for both of them.

Which has affected my experience of this book. As I read this, I see much that I can relate to, much I can admire; but I'm not sure I would like Elizabeth Gilbert if I met her in person. I'm not sure I would enjoy spending the hours in her company that I am spending with her book. So I see why the people who didn't like this book felt that way.

The book is also curiously distancing; she spends the first third of the book in Italy, learning to love the culture, the food, the experience of living in a world view fundamentally different from her upbringing. And yet, the experience on the page is a bit flat. She admits that she doesn't see Rome architecturally, historically, or any of a number of ways that would bring it alive for me. It's good food (which I love, of course, but even that is a bit dull), and how she feels about it. And since I'm not invested emotionally in her, it's a bit off-putting. She doesn't show me Rome so I can appreciate it and share--she shows me how Rome affects her, in a way that keeps me out of Italy.

So, the solution, I guess, is to bloody well go to Rome myself, and write that book. Right?

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