A year ago, within the span of about 2 weeks, five friends told me about this book. I was even going to go to a book talk, without having read the book, but a snow stormed ended that plan! Just as well. I wasn’t quite ready last January. I read it in August in 24 hours. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is her true account of a spiritual pilgrimage over a year. She spent 4 months regaining her health and vitality by living in Italy – surrounded by beauty, learning a beautiful language and eating sensual food. Over the next four months, she explored her spirituality at an ashram in India. Finally, she headed to Bali because she deemed it a place of beauty and spirituality combined. And while in Bali she found love with a Brazilian.
And I had mixed feelings and views about the book. (Okay, besides jealousy). The story obviously engaged me. But I felt it did so because it was a fairy tale. My yoga teacher’s response to that was: “You know, fairy tales do come true.” And yes, I do believe that – but I felt that too much went too right for her. She wrote a note of intent – a message asking for her husband to sign the divorce papers. And lo and behold, minutes later her lawyer called with the news. She prayed for her nephew who was having trouble sleeping and she called home after and her sister was astounded to report the nephew was better. Liz meditated and felt the kundalini rising. (Kundalini means “coiled energy,” and rarely during meditation that energy is released in a feeling that, apparently, moves up the spine. The result is a sense of deep connection with all living beings. For more information, click here.) And in Italy she ate pasta every day and gelato every day, sometimes twice a day, gained 20 pounds and wasn’t overweight! See, a fairy tale!
Okay, so what’s wrong with that? I agree that books should entertain. Ideally, they do so while they educate. And she did the best description I’ve ever read of the process of developing a meditation practice – the frustrations, the goal, the process and how to set your intention. And I felt her self-deprecation and voice offered an accessible tone. These types of stories can be so preachy and condescending. She avoids those pitfalls. Reading about her, you cared about her and wanted to find out what happened.
But, I worried that she set up expectations that could create yearning, a sense of deprivation by comparison and/or inspire people to follow her path exactly. Now, in interviews since the popularity of this book took off, Gilbert made clear that her path was her path and that one doesn’t need to go to Italy, India and Bali to turn around their lives and find happiness. (She addresses this question specifically on her web site.) For one thing, most people can’t. They don’t have a book advance to make it possible. They have children who can’t be abandoned for a year. I’ve heard her concede this in subsequent interviews. Also, I was relieved when a friend, Richard, whom she met in India, appeared with her on Oprah – he described his own experience with meditation which was very different. And to me more typical and more real. And he noted that not all people have or need to have, as Liz did, the kundalini rise.
Secondly and more importantly, I felt that the doubts of veracity would undermine the helpful messages embedded. Perhaps readers would say, no way because the story was too good to be true and likewise dismiss many of the very helpful lessons. And her lessons are worthwhile.
Well, in the week before Christmas, NPR finally got the memo that people were interested in this book. I love NPR but sometimes they just miss the ball and seem to be of the view that if something is popular (on Oprah!) that their listeners would not be interested. Talk of the Nation‘s Neal Conan interviewed Ms. Gilbert. The discussion was a good one – mostly because of the callers’ questions. One caller, who said maybe she was a skeptic by nature, observed it was such neat package. Too tidy. “You go from divorce to marriage. You go from looking for God, to finding God. How much is genuine and how much is wanting to sell a good book?” (It’s about 23 minutes into the interview).
I thought, yeah – I wanted to know that too and could add to the aspects that made me suspicious. Gilbert admitted that she felt an obligation to her reader not to make them go through every moment of “my 4 years of despair with me”. (Because readers need to be entertained, engaged?…) She took a 5 year period of her life that was a “disaster zone,” and condensed it. The book was the way I wrote myself out of it. “I didn’t know how it was going to turn out.” She admitted a lot of what happened isn’t even in the book.
The book is very good and worth the read. But I think it would have been even better if she had included a few more of the times that her prayers weren’t answered quickly so tidily. I acknowledge that she was balancing interests – engaging her reader and being honest with them. I just wish she’d tipped the scale a little bit more toward reality once her journey started. That would have made her example all the more potent and stimulating.
To buy the book, click here. To check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s web site, including her thoughts on writing and photos of some of the real people she met on her journey, click here. And the Oprah site has an Eat, Love, Pray section.