Eating, praying and loving: three things a lot of us were doing during the recent holiday weekend. Unfortunately for my waistline, I was engaging in more “eating” than anything else. The praying part I’ll stay mum about, but there wasn’t much loving going on working at HPB on Black Friday.
However, I have been reflecting long and hard on my latest read, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. Despite its insane popularity, I initially didn’t know how I’d like the book. I mean, it was one those books–the ones Oprah likes and soccer moms request in droves. It’s supposed to “change” your life, or some kind of crap. Plus, just because this woman achieved enlightenment in her trek through Italy, India and Indonesia (yeah yeah, try and convince me the alliteration was a coincidence), why should we care? How can I relate to this woman–a woman who is lucky and wealthy enough to go larking around the world for a year? Puh-lease.
Then, I shelved my cynicism long enough to actually read the book, and loved it. Yep, it’s as simple as that; Gilbert is as funny, endearing and occasionally insightful as everyone said she was. Damn it lady, you made me like something dangerously close to a self-help book. I hope you’re happy.
Now, I understand that I am being a little bit of a cad so far in this review. But I only criticize because I truly enjoyed this book–at times I felt like Gilbert’s words cut straight to the heart. As I wrote at length earlier, the section on Italy and the pursuit of pleasure touched a cord with me that, even now, I can’t shake. But it’s not all about pleasure; I admire Gilbert’s entire outlook on life. If you couldn’t tell already, the story follows Gilbert around the world as she looks to yank herself out of a near-suicidal depression, brought on by divorce and a failed love affair. After two years of shrinks and heavy medication, she decides to pursue her passions abroad in order to re-align her psyche, face her flaws and maybe re-invent herself. Like I said, she goes to Italy to pursue pleasure (by eating delicious food), India to pray and meditate at a famous ashram, and Indonesia (Bali to be specific) to find a balance between the two.
All this being said, the book had its flaws. Again, it sure was nice Gilbert was able to score a hefty advance to write Eat Pray Love before embarking on her adventure of self-discovery. I’m sure there are dozens of divorcees out there itching to find themselves in Italy–doing nothing but eating and studying Italian with handsome men–but are forced to wake up every morning, send the kids off to school, go to work and deal with depression the old-fashioned way. Of course, it’s important to recognize that the old-fashioned way doesn’t work, and these men and women live miserable lives. Gilbert did come back awfully happy. And to be fair, Gilbert admits her trip was funded by her publisher. Still, occasionally one gets the feeling that Gilbert is consoling us by cheerily reminding us poor simpletons that we don’t have to go halfway across the world for enlightenment–we can simply buy her book!
As glued as I was during the first two thirds of the book, I was a little doubtful during the most intense throes of Liz’s religious rebirth. It wasn’t necessarily the philosophy Gilbert espoused during the India section; in fact, I felt that her dedication to faith rather than any specific religion to be refreshing. It even touched my own “religious” core, which is always searching, somewhat skeptical, never defined and always trying to love. This faith has always been inextricably linked to literature (Life of Pi by Yann Martel changed my life), and so I found this quote to be especially beautiful:
Just as there exists in writing a literal truth and a poetic truth, there also exists in a human being a literal anatomy and a poetic anatomy. One, you can see; one cannot. One is made of bones and teeth and flesh; the other is made of energy and memory and faith. But they are both equally true.
Instead of fighting over which religion is “right,” Gilbert has chosen to live a life defined by faith rather than dogma, finding peace in our “poetic” existence. All arguments of religion aside, I would also like to imagine life in these terms. Speaking of Life of Pi, I also found the following passage to be especially prescient for these troubled times, when religion is oftentimes the catalyst for violence and misunderstanding. If anyone has read Martel’s classic (and I definitely recommend it), you may remember the idea that the world’s religions are merely highways, all of which lead to heaven. Gilbert rehashes this argument in her own literary vein, claiming religions are merely “metaphors:”
Your job, then, should you choose to accept it, is to keep searching for the metaphors, rituals and teachers that will help you move ever closer to divinity. The Yogic sciptures say that God responds to the sacred prayers and efforts of human beings in any way whatsoever that mortals choose to worship–just so long as those prayers are sincere. As one line from the Upanishad suggests: ‘People follow different paths, straight or crooked, according to the temperment, depending on which they consider best, or most appropriate–and all reach You, just as rivers enter the ocean.
Now, I’m not sure whether Gilbert is using her book to champion the Yogic tradition–the particular path Gilbert chose–but I’m not going to believe that. At least, I’m not booking a flight to India. But I believe Gilbert’s philosophy on religion and pleasure is one that deserves a hearing. That being said, I did say I was a little doubtful toward the end of her religious rebirth. Though the book is expertly written and oftentimes hilarious (which I wasn’t expecting, considering the serious subject matter), Gilbert’s prose slipped into what I call “church talk” during the second section. For most of the book, I liked that Gilbert wasn’t beating me over the head with her religious beliefs; she was sharing her spiritual life, and I appreciated her honesty. It’s not that she is emotionally distant to her story, but she keeps herself in perspective for the benefit of her readers. However, once Gilbert slips into her religious convulsions, readers are stuck with lengthy descriptions of her rapture. This is great for her, but it’s hard for me to relate as I munch on my carrot sticks during lunch. At the very least, she could have rephrased things so it didn’t sound so very much like the Baptist ministrations I grew up with. Let’s be original here.
I was also getting tired near the end of the book, when she finally found a way to love again. Believe me, I was happy that she was happy–and with all the sex she was having with her Brazilian lover, she definitely was happy. But the first two sections were so good, and the love affair seemed so contrived (even if it was real), I just thought she could have ended it much earlier. Overall, though, Eat Pray Love was an excellent book and I’d recommend it to anyone–OK, maybe not my dad, but definitely my girlfriends.