The back cover of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love" promises one more autobiography to add to this pile. Gilbert was faced with "divorce and crushing depression", so she set out to "examine three different aspects of her nature, set against the backdrop of three different cultures:" -- Italy, India, and Indonesia.
Apart from the self-absorption aspect, the whole project sounded awfully contrived. Of all the countries in the world, she just happened to choose three that are famous tourist destinations starting with the letter 'I'? But Gilbert has a disarming way of addressing such skepticism up front. On page 30, after describing how she came to this plan:
Imagine now, if you will, all the opportunities for mockery this idea unleashed in my wise-ass friends. I wanted to go to the Three I's, did I? Then why not spend the year in Iran, Ivory Coast, and Iceland? Or even better -- why not go on pilgrimage to the Great Tri-State "I" triumvirate of Islip, I-95 and Ikea? My friend Susan suggested that perhaps I should establish a not-for-profit relief organization called 'Divorcees without Borders'.
Gilbert had vague connections to all three countries before the year-long project that is documented in Eat, Pray, Love. She had taken a handful of Italian-language classes because she loved the sound of the language. She had attended spiritual gatherings in New York where disciples of an unnamed Indian guru meditated together. And she had visited Indonesia, where a medicine man told her she was destined to return to Bali and be his English teacher. (One imagines she had similar connections to other countries -- perhaps her favourite restaurant in New York is Lebanese? Or her close friend is Argentinian? She once almost got on a flight to Zimbabwe? -- but they are not described in this book)
Perhaps the most appealing part of Gilbert's writing is her self-deprecating and unpretentious tone. She is brutally honest about her broken relationships. She ruthlessly describes her unattractive habit of becoming "like a barnacle" in a relationship -- needy, demanding, panicky, and pathetic. It is a testament to the emotional depth of her writing that the reader can understand the desire of her partners to back away while also sympathizing with Gilbert and hoping that she makes it through.
In the midst of emotional trauma she is able to laugh at herself, and with artful turns of phrase to boot. In Italy she is hit by a serious bout of depression:
What was the root of all this despair? Was it psychological? (Mom and Dad's fault?) Was it just temporal, a 'bad time' in my life? (When the divorce ends, will the depression end with it?) Was it genetic? (Melancholy called by many names has run through my family for generations, along with its sad bride, Alcoholism) Was it cultural? (Is this just the fallout of a postfeminist American career girl trying to find balance in an increasingly stressful and alienating urban world?) Was it astrological? (Am I so sad because I?m a thin-skinned Cancer whose major signs are all ruled by unstable Gemini?) Was it artistic? (Don't creative people always suffer from depression because we're so supersensitive and special?) Was it evolutionary? (Do I carry in me the residual panic that comes after millennia of my species' attempting to survive a brutal world?) Was it karmic? (Are all these spasms of grief just the consequences of bad behaviour in previous lifetimes, the last obstacles before liberation?) Was it hormonal? Dietary? Philosophical? Seasonal? Environmental? Was I tapping into a universal yearning for God? Did I have a chemical imbalance? Or did I just need to get laid?
In Italy, Gilbert focuses on pleasure, largely defined by food. She samples every recommended restaurant she can find in Rome, Naples, Bologna, Venice, and anywhere she can get a train ticket to. She revels in fresh asparagus, roasted endive, spaghetti al carbonara, pizza margherita, fresh buffalo mozzarella, wine and pastries. Along the way she proffers her impressions of the people she meets and the bits of culture to which she is exposed. Like most writers, she focuses on differences from the familiar: passion during a soccer match, the way Italians are able to relax (il bel far niente -- the pleasure of doing nothing).
Her time in India is devoted to devotion. She lives in an ashram near Mumbai and attempts to meditate. There are few opinions about life or people in the larger India since she spends most of her time in the ashram. She faces her demons with the help of an irreverent Texan resident, and describes her epiphanies with relative originality.
Bali is her final destination, and is intended for "balance". Gilbert's interactions with the Balinese make this section more interesting than the one on India. She spends extensive periods with Ketut the medicine man (who does not remember her at first), and with Wayan, a healer, but the latter interaction is tarnished by a cultural divide. And, dramatically, she finds romance, as you might have guessed from the third word in the title, but I'll leave you to discover the details yourself.
Unspiritual and unreligious people (like me) may feel a faint sense of bewilderment at the intensity with which Gilbert searches for spiritual succour, but they (also like me) are likely to enjoy following her journey.
Book Description: In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything a modern American woman was supposde to want -- husband, country home, succesful career -- but instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she felt consumed by panic and confusion. THis wise and rapturous book is the story of how she left behind all these outward marks of success, and of what she found in their place. Following a divorce and crushing depression, Gilbert set out to examine three different aspects of her nature, set against the backdrop of three different cultures: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence.
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