Heart and Soul

Reviewed by Grace Lichtenstein
Sunday, February 12, 2006


One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy,

India and Indonesia

By Elizabeth Gilbert

Viking. 334 pp. $24.95

The only thing wrong with this readable, funny memoir of a magazine writer's yearlong travels across the world in search of pleasure and balance is that it seems so much like a Jennifer Aniston movie.

Like Jen, Liz is a plucky blond American woman in her thirties with no children and no major money worries. As the book opens, she is going through a really bad divorce and subsequent stormy rebound love affair. Awash in tears in the middle of the night on the floor of the bathroom, she begins to pray for guidance, "you know -- like, to God ." God answers. He tells her to go back to bed.

I started seeing the Star headlines: "Jen's New Faith!" "What Really Happened at the Ashram!" "Jen's Brazilian Sugar Daddy -- Exclusive Photos!"

Please understand that Gilbert, whose earlier nonfiction book, The Last American Man , portrayed a contemporary frontiersman, is serious about her quest. But because she never leaves her self-deprecating humor at home, her journey out of depression and toward belief lacks a certain gravitas. The book is composed of 108 short chapters (based on the beads in a traditional Indian japa mala prayer necklace) that often come across as scenes in a movie. And however sad she feels or however deeply she experiences something, she can't seem to avoid dressing up her feelings in prose that can get too cute and too trite. On the other hand, she convinced me that she acquired more wisdom than most young American seekers -- and did it without peyote buttons or other classic hippie medicines.

When Gilbert determines that she requires a year of healing, her first stop is Italy, because she feels she needs to immerse herself in a language and culture that worships pleasure and beauty. This sets the stage for a "Jen's Romp in Rome," where she studies Italian and, with newfound friends, searches for the best pizza in the world. It's a considerable achievement because she is still stalked by Depression and Loneliness, which she casts as "Pinkerton Detectives" -- Depression, the wise guy, and Loneliness, "the more sensitive cop." They frisk her, "empty my pockets of any joy I had been carrying" and relentlessly interrogate her about why she thinks she deserves a vacation, considering what a mess she's made of her life.

After literally eating herself out of depression, she returns to the United States for Christmas holidays. Next stop: the ashram. It seems Gilbert has been a student of yoga and meditation for years.

Her rural Indian experience features Gilbert grappling mightily with some of the meditative practices. She finds quirky co-practitioners such as Richard from Texas, a former truck driver, alcoholic and Birkenstock dealer. Richard nicknames her "Groceries" because of her appetite at meals and offers wise advice. Picture Willie Nelson in a non-singing cameo role.

Gilbert acknowledges that Americans have had difficulty accepting the idea of meditation and gurus, and she does a mostly fine job in making her ashram education accessible. She deftly sketches the physical stress of sitting in one position for hours, as well as the metaphysical stress of staying on message. Still, Gilbert sounds like a giddy teenager as she describes her relationship with Swamiji, the yogi who founded the ashram where she is studying: "I'm finding that all I want is Swamiji. All I feel is Swamiji. . . . It's the Swamiji channel, round the clock."

The concluding 36 beads find Gilbert in Bali, palling around with an ageless medicine man who looks like Yoda, a Balinese mother and nurse, Wayan, who is a refugee from domestic violence, and other colorful characters. Gilbert is healed enough by now to render a really good deed: She raises $18,000 via e-mail from American friends for Wayan to buy a house. ("Jen: Bigger Do-Gooder Than Brad?") And after 18 months of self-imposed celibacy, she finds mature, truer love thanks to a charming older Brazilian businessman.

Eat, Pray, L ove as a whole actually is better than its 108 beads. By the time she and her lover sailed into a Bali sunset, Gilbert had won me over. She's a gutsy gal, this Liz, flaunting her psychic wounds and her search for faith in a pop-culture world, and her openness ultimately rises above its glib moments. Memo to Jen -- option this book. ยท

Grace Lichtenstein is a travel writer and author of six books who lives in New York and Santa Fe, N.M.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company