We come together to discuss a book that gives strength to the weak, succor to the afflicted, hope to the hopeless. A book filled with sacred truths and epiphanies. A book about a book about a journey.
The bestselling self-help/travel guide, which sold a phenomenal 10 million copies and made Elizabeth Gilbert a very rich woman, has graced our world for a decade — a milestone no clever publisher would ignore. Although most might be content with a special edition or an updated foreword, Gilbert gives us a new codex of “life journeys” inspired by her iconic book.
If you loved “Eat Pray Love,” you should stop reading here. Just rush out and buy this companion piece, then curl up with your prayer beads and dive in. Namaste, sisters.
If, on the other hand, you thought the original was self-indulgent sop — an insufferable memoir by a privileged woman with first-world problems — we should talk.
Already a successful New York writer, Gilbert pitched the idea of a post-divorce travelogue (Italy, India and Indonesia), and her publisher financed the year-long trip with a $200,000 advance. The resulting book hit the trifecta of chick-lit porn: pasta, spiritual awakening and marriage to a sexy Brazilian she met in Bali.
If the improbable fairy tale was coyly predictable — really, who doesn’t love a happy ending? — neither Gilbert nor her publisher dreamed the book would become a cultural juggernaut. Thanks to a blessing from high priestess Oprah, it spent more than 200 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, became a movie starring Julia Roberts, and spawned 1,000 copycat empowerment tours. (“Have some gelato, Linda. It’s in the book!”)
Gilbert claims she never fully understood why “Eat Pray Love” was such a success, so for the 10th anniversary, she asked fans to submit short essays about how it impacted their lives. She whittled down about 2,000 entries to 47 first-person tales of self-loathing, self-discovery and self-love. Each writer (and I use that term loosely) recounts how reading the book changed them in profound, life-altering ways.
Let’s stipulate that finding your bliss, regardless where one stumbles across it, is a good thing. Some find it in church, some with a pint of Haagen-Dazs and “Sex and the City” reruns, and some with “Eat Pray Love.” Hey, I’m not going to judge.
But, at the risk of being expelled from the “You go, girl” sorority, the essays themselves are another matter. Painfully earnest and yet cringingly self-congratulatory, they all follow Gilbert’s road to redemption — an emotional collapse, a spiritual journey, a self-affirming conclusion — in the most prosaic way possible. “To say I ‘found’ myself through this experience may be trite, but it’s also true,” writes one contributor. “I realized there was one adventure I had never tried: self-acceptance,” writes another.
Their newfound serenity is nothing compared with the almost cultish deification of their heroine. “I began to feel that Elizabeth Gilbert and I were cosmically connected — as single women, as brave souls, as truth seekers,” writes one woman. “Liz got me. Liz was me,” says another. And this: “Instantly, I knew Gilbert had described the true nature of being.”
And tears. So. Many. Tears. The book is waterlogged with sobbing women who break down at the drop of a metaphor. Sobbing in the kitchen, sobbing in front of the TV, sobbing while reading and, best of all, sobbing uncontrollably in the bathroom: the very place Gilbert had her own Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion, the Holy Grail of breakdowns. “I genuinely related to Gilbert’s every word. I, too, cried on my bathroom floor!” writes the “freshly divorced writer” — three words that should strike fear in all but the most forgiving reader.
Reading essay after essay, a pattern emerges: Many of these women (the contributors are overwhelmingly female) struggled with marriage, motherhood, infertility, cancer, divorce, addiction, grief or depression. Some are young, battling the crushing insecurities of early adulthood. “I was vulnerable and hurting and needing something more,” writes one woman about her flirtation with the Mormon faith, but it also describes most of the essayists. “I was caught in a tsunami of pain,” says another. Or this heartbreaker: “It was during this period of loneliness and self-loathing that a friend suggested ‘Eat Pray Love.’ ”
If the book served as a life raft (and who could object to that?), it also fed the most pernicious feelings of melodrama and entitlement. “As often is the case with wandering souls in their twenties, I was looking for my life’s purpose in the bottom of bottles, which I often drank in dark music venues, with people who didn’t respect me or my potential,” writes one young woman. “ ‘Eat Pray Love’ reminded me I deserved a good life.”
And there’s the rub, isn’t it? So many people want a good life, yearn for a good life. But deserve? According to whom? And at what price?
Gilbert’s path to empowerment was subsidized by her publisher, a fact she conveniently glossed over in the book. (The universe will provide. Namaste.) Many of her upper-middle-class followers had fat bank accounts that gave them the freedom to escape the boring old world and the boring people stuck in their soul-sucking jobs. As one put it: “I couldn’t shake the daily frustration of being trapped inside for eight hours a day, staring at computer screen. . . . Sure, I could write a personal essay and discuss the works of Nikolai Gogol, but I didn’t know a decent wood-chopping technique or which plants belonged to which plant family.”
God, save me from people who humble-brag about Gogol.
You know what you deserve, dear reader? Fair warning about a 220-page encomium to Elizabeth Gilbert. And gelato. At the very least, gelato.
With an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert
Riverhead. 220 pp. Paperback, $16