By Carolyn See
Thursday, January 7, 2010; C01
A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking. 285 pp. $26.95
Everyone knows that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote "Eat, Pray, Love," a journalistic exploration of a year she spent recovering from a broken heart (a first marriage, an acrimonious divorce) by traveling through Italy, India and Indonesia to figure out some of the great questions of life. Everyone knows the book was an unexpected mega-blockbuster, and a good percentage of female readers know that by the end she had found love again in the form of a Brazilian gem dealer, conveniently living on the island of Bali. She and this man, whom she calls Felipe (to protect what's left of his privacy), fell passionately in love but, because of their unfortunate first marriages, vowed never to participate in that dreaded institution again.
How do you write a sequel to "Eat, Pray, Love"? Luckily, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provided an answer. The author and Felipe had been living a contented, workable life, if I read correctly, in that interesting gap after "Eat, Pray, Love" was written but before it came out. The couple didn't know they were sitting on plenty of money; the "future" hadn't happened yet. They were living a catch-as-catch-can existence in America, with Felipe staying with Gilbert for the extent of a 90-day visitor's visa, then leaving the country, then coming back on another visa. But the authorities didn't take to this because Felipe wasn't really visiting. One fateful night, when the couple landed together in a Dallas airport, Felipe was questioned, handcuffed, detained and then deported. The best course of action for them, a helpful government official suggested, was to marry.
Ah, but neither of them wanted to marry because that would have meant entering into the state of matrimony, which was, by definition, loathsome to them both. Never mind. The U.S. government, like a stern father, proposed a shotgun marriage of sorts: If you want to be with him in this country, this Brazilian we don't know all that much about, you'll have to marry him, but first he'll have to get his papers in order. In the meantime, off he goes. And this is where Gilbert got the idea for her next book. She would follow Felipe into exile (in this case, Southeast Asian locales like Cambodia and Laos, where they could live cheaply) and use that time to research the institution of marriage, to pin down why she felt such an aversion to it and to see if there were some way she could come to terms with a second marriage.
As part of the very interesting introductory material here, Gilbert writes that she had a good deal of trouble producing this sequel. Once you've been read by millions, how do you adjust your voice to write to those millions? The author says she threw out a 500-page first draft (written by someone who seemed a stranger to her) and decided, instead, to write for a limited audience of 27 women, her family and friends, to whom she graciously introduces us. Theirs are the concerns of every woman, she suggests, and she pays close attention to the questions about relationships that have plagued us all.
Before "Eat, Pray, Love," Gilbert was an intrepid journalist who had taken one assignment so seriously that she hung a condom filled with birdseed between her legs and posed as a man for a week. So it's only natural that in the rural hamlets of Southeast Asia she finds herself in the homes of villagers, brashly asking women the secret to a happy marriage. Many of the villagers laugh themselves sick, and with good reason. All this material is amusing, but I think an anthropologist would faint from mortification: Gilbert seems to have made no effort to build a rapport with her "informants," no effort to ask questions that might come from inside their culture instead of hers. It turns out to be merely a demonstration, and a successful one, of the differences between Eastern and Western views of marriage.
Gilbert also does plenty of bookish research on Western marriage, reflecting particularly on the custom of "coverture," which back in the day meant that, once a woman was married, everything she owned ended up in the hands of her husband. The author also quotes statistics most of us have read before: In present-day America, married men make more money and live longer than single ones; single women make more money and live longer than married ones. Many women get married to have children, but Gilbert cites figures to show that having children raises the odds of a marriage failing, and the younger you are when you marry, the more likely your marriage will fail. So the author and Felipe have some factors working for them: They're in middle age and don't plan to have children. On the other hand, they come from different cultures, and that's a strike against them.
All this material is collected as they travel through Asia, waiting for Felipe's papers to come through. Felipe shines as a character here; he's quoted infrequently but appears tremendously endearing. On the downside, Gilbert portrays her relatively routine first marriage as something like the last act of a grand opera. But then no one can accurately gauge another person's anguish.
This story is essentially journalism, written by an extremely competent journalist. It doesn't pretend to be anything more than that. It's a charming narrative that ends, Shakespearean-fashion, with a happy-hearted wedding. What's not to like?
See reviews books regularly for The Post.
Sunday in Outlook
-- Why architecture matters.
-- Machiavelli's inspiration for "The Prince."
-- Our government's limp sex ed efforts.
-- Trauma in the lives of young black men.
-- And a new military history of the Civil War.