Sunday, October 21, 2007

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

I finished this book on the plane home from San Francisco. And while I have some quibbles about it, I have found myself flashing back to it. There are specific scenes which are very good, and there is something about the feelings the book created in me that I keep returning to. It's as though the emotional landscape is hard to leave. I remain conflicted about this book, however.

After four months in an ashram in India, learning to meditate, Gilbert ends the book in Bali. There, she has crafted a bookend finish that is in many ways the exact opposite of the way the book began. The woman who was trapped and miserable in a house, with a husband and the pressure for a baby in New York is now somewhat older, homeless, with a Brazilian lover 16 years her senior. Not only has he already raised a family, he now has a vasectomy, so there is no chance of a baby at all. They make a commitment to each other that they will share their lives between America, Australia, Bali and Brazil.

She also ends with a story about a Zen teaching—that an oak tree is created by the existence of the acorn, plus the force of the tree the acorn will grow into, willing the acorn into growth, to create its own existence. Perhaps, she thinks, the voice that comforted her back when she was sobbing on the bathroom floor in her house in New York was the older, happier, more balanced self who is now in Bali . She does not have a house. . .so far as we know; she is not planning on marrying her lover, and the two of them are not going to have any babies. Her life at the end of the book is the mirror opposite of the life she was leading at the beginning. The book leaves the impression that she is a different person from the woman she was at the beginning, and as all such "journey of self discovery" books must, we have a happy ending.

But is this really believable? Certainly, Gilbert could not have ended the book ambiguously--a book that ended with her feeling dissatisfied and uncertain what to do next would simply not have been one that would be published. I left the book feeling a little bit manipulated--played, if you will--by this woman.

Think about it, after all. Here is a woman who is in a terrible place in her life--her divorce got ugly and dragged on and on. Her rebound relationship also fell apart. She was left with very little after the settlement. So, she proposes a book where she will spend four months in each of three countries to find herself, or find balance, or something. How likely is it that at the end of a single year she will have any real handle on The Right Way to live her life?

I'll tell you. Not very likely at all. BUT--it can be written as though she has found The Right Way, and she doesn't have to reveal any glitches, or failures, or anything negative that happened. And I think that is what happened. It all looks lovely at the end, but I doubt that her life stayed as idyllic as it looked while she was on vacation with her new lover in the South Pacific.

NOBODY'S life ever ends up as idyllic as it looks while on vacation.

So, here's the problem I have with this book: I think we have been manipulated into thinking that Elizabeth Gilbert ate and prayed her way into balance, which was actualized on Bali. I think she was not all that different a person at the end than at the beginning of the book, and all the "growth" the book presents is illusory.

What makes me say that? The first thing that really rang false for me was the night she met her Brazilian lover. She hardly noticed him at all that night. Instead, she met a Welsh ex-pat named Ian, and they talked for hours. She says at least twice "I really liked this guy." At the end of the evening, they part without exchanging contact information, and Ian says "We will meet again when [the gods] think it's right."

And she goes home and obsesses over this guy. She relives everything they said, and projects a future with him. She starts to worry about where they would live, how she would be able to continue her career from Bali. She essentially abandons everything about herself in order to mold herself around this new man. This is David Redux--everything about this monologue is exactly the same endless dither she used to do about David.

Remember, she doesn't know where he lives, she doesn't have a phone number for him. He doesn't have her address or her email. Even Prince Charming had Cinderella's shoe to help him find her again! Ian and Liz have less than that. So, we are treated to the very real idea that if Ian ever called her again, she'd dive right back into the same kind of clingy dependent relationship that she had with David less than a year before. Everything about this spells disaster.

Except that she doesn't run into him again. Ever. (As far as we know.) The infatuation burns itself out, we are left to suppose, because she doesn't mention him again after that one experience. It seems that the only thing that allowed her to move herself out of the rut of bad relationship patterns was sheer luck in not seeing this guy again! How enlightened is that?

Second, the final scenes of the book feel set up and manipulated. Gilbert ends the book describing a vacation she is taking on another island close to Bali. This is an island she has visited before, at the nadir of her divorce and breakup. Here she took a vow of silence, and meditated and tried to quiet her turbulent emotions. She describes beautifully the process of examining her fear. anger and shame, and accepting those feelings. She says she invites those things into her heart to rest. She reassures them (and herself) that they are loved, accepted, and that "it is over." After ten days, she finds herself at peace.

SO--why were we walked through her time in India, if she was already able to do this? And why should we believe that her experience in India is any more permanent than her island retreat had been? Even before she started this book project, she had learned how to let things go. Her biggest revelation in India is that she has to let David go. But does she--really? She has at least one night in Bali when she considers calling David to see if he wants to get back together. Sure, she doesn't act on it--so far as she tells us--but the fact that she hasn't really let him go makes me suspicious of how much of this book is really fiction.

So, with these questions in my mind, what do I have at the end of this book? I have a woman who had a bad divorce and a bad rebound relationship. From the time she realized she didn't want to be married anymore until the peaceful ending of this book was roughly 4 or 5 years. Look, even without eating pasta in Italy, meditating in India, and vacationing in Bali, she might have felt better--and felt wiser too. As far as I can see, she was lucky to meet a fabulous man who seems to love her just the enveloping way she wanted her previous men to love her. She doesn't need to cling to Felipe, because he clings to her. He is, she says, molding his life around her--so she doesn't have to mold her life around him. But the relationship dynamic isn't really all that different. Her expectations of love haven't really changed. She is a little older, a little more at peace, a little wiser--maybe. And not necessarily because of anything that has happened in this book.

Lots of people love this book, and I would be very interested in hearing from those of you who did. Do you have any of the misgivings I have about this?


Raffi said...

Hi Cate. I read EPL more recently and wanted to answer your question. I'm a guy and I liked the book a lot. Why? You already answered it in your blog: The book leaves you with certain feelings that you always remember as part of the ride in reading it. It transfers an energy to the reader that goes beyond the words. And that is what art (regardless of the medium) should do. There's something happening below the surface story in this book that the people that loved it picked up on an place in the foreground. The people that hate the book did not feel anything and are simply judging it on the story. You seem to be somewhere in between. You felt what's special about this book, and you're placing the story in the driver's seat. To each his own. It's rare that art, music or a book makes me feel something...and when it does, I push my left-brain aside and give it credit for what my right-brain experienced.

Liv said...

I'll admit, my prejudice based on the title before reading it, but fell madly in love with both the book and author.