Saturday, August 1, 2009

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Before I started Eat, Pray, Love I was a little worried it might be too God-y for me. I have a very complicated relationship with organized religion, and in many ways my experiences have not been terribly good. And currently, though not forever, I feel it's best to leave it at that. And so when I'm reading anything, significant amounts of God tend to turn me off. But, my mother's recommendation aside, Elizabeth Gilbert herself convinced me to give things a try, because I like the way she thinks. From her introduction:

And since this is the first time I have introduced that loaded word -- GOD -- into my book and since this is a word which will appear many times again throughout these pages, it seems only fair that I pause here for a moment to explain exactly what I mean when I say that word, just so people can decide right away how offended they need to get.

For me, just the act of pointing out that "God" is a loaded word is enough. The last part of that sentence made me laugh out loud, because she covers all of us -- those who have very specific ideas of God, and those who don't want anything to do with God, and all of us in between. From that moment on, I decided to read this book because I felt I could read it as her experience, and not feel like she was preaching at me. And it never did feel preachy. Sometimes it felt like she was gently suggesting advice -- a good friend, an older sister -- but it never, ever felt like she was trying to convert me and I got behind that 100%.

Let's get this out of the way first: the last third of the book was a bit of a letdown for me, and I've been trying to figure out why. I've come to the conclusion that it feels, overall, as though Gilbert is finally withdrawing. Throughout the first two sections, we get all her pain and all her love and all her thoughts and failures and triumphs, bared to us in almost graphic clarity. The third section seems somehow less intimate, which is interesting given that significant portions of that third section are about sex. I was going to say "which is odd" but it occurs to me that sex, physical and emotional intimacy between two people (in this case, anyway), may be one of the hardest things to write about in a clear-eyed, no-holds-barred way -- breaking that bubble of intimacy so that the world can share in it through one's writing is perhaps not something Gilbert wants to do, or can do. And that's okay. So in the third section there is more of an outsider-looking-in feeling, than the incredible closeness that one feels to Gilbert in the first two sections.

The third section didn't ruin the book for me by any means. And part of what I have enjoyed about it so much is the way it makes me think, and examine my own thoughts and assumptions as well as the assumptions of others. My mother and I were discussing this criticism from her book club when they read this book: Gilbert is too self-indulgent. Mandy also mentioned that she's read reviews calling the book narcissistic -- here's some news, critics: it's a memoir. So yes. Narcissistic, if you want to be nasty about it. I like memoirs because I enjoy getting that very personal look at the world from someone else's perspective, and I get that in spades from Eat, Pray, Love.

But self-indulgent is something slightly different, and with respect to my mother's book club, I disagree with them. I even got a little ferocious when talking about it with Mom. I know a few things about depression, and one thing I do understand is that one doesn't get over a deep depression by denying oneself healing. In Gilbert's case (which I am admittedly looking at through her writing, one side of the story and all that) I suspect anything less than what might be called "self-indulgence" would have been fatal. In fact, one of the things I was most impressed with was that she had both the clarity to understand what she needed to do to dig herself out of her hole, and the guts to actually do it. When dealing with depression, one has to be selfish. Because, as Gilbert herself says at one point, being miserable not only hurts you, it hurts and inconveniences others around you, too. But our good Protestant culture here in North America very much frowns on some types of selfishness. It takes a brave, strong, and/or desperate soul to ignore society and visit Italy for four months to do nothing but eat, talk, and nap in order to begin healing.

Gilbert has a very distinct voice, and I really, really liked it. When Mom and I were talking about self-indulgence, I realized I was beginning to defend Gilbert as I would a friend; her writing style, and the things she opens up about in her book, make her seem familiar -- someone I could call up and have a great chat with. This doesn't happen to me very often with books, and I liked it. Part of it was that I found a lot of what Gilbert had to say completely relatable. Try this:

Instead of being amused, though, I'm only anxious. Instead of watching, I'm always probing and interfering. The other day in prayer I said to God, "Look, I understand that an unexamined life is not worth living, but do you think I could someday have an unexamined lunch?"

I know that brain-busy-anxious feeling all too well.

And on a lighter note:

Before dawn the roosters for miles around announce how freaking cool it is to be roosters. "We are ROOSTERS!" they holler. "We are the only ones who are ROOSTERS!"

It almost makes me like roosters. And finally, a piece of wisdom that I think is incredibly important, coming to us from her Guru via Gilbert:

She says that people universally tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fin weather if you're fortunate enough. But that's now how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.

I don't think this book is for everyone, although I do wish it was. But I read it at a good time in my life to read it, a time when I am thinking about choices I have made and have yet to make, a time when I am finding myself sometimes treading water frantically just to keep my head out. It was, overall, a really interesting, beautiful, raw, and very worthwhile read for me. And I would advise trying it -- just trying it. Mom was surprised that she liked it as much as she did. My grandmother was surprised she liked it as much as she did. I was really surprised that I liked it as much as I did. But I tried it and I really enjoyed it, so I recommend trying it, and if it doesn't work the first time, wait five years and try it again. I suspect this book changes with time.


Mandy said...

Wow. Excellent review. I may even read it again (although I always knew I would eventually, like you said I also suspect that this book changes over time and depending when in your life you read it).
I liked the final third of the book because her inner pain and confusion had been delt with enough that she could be outward-thinking again, but still retaining that deep-rootedness she had dug out for herself by looking inward. The first third, in Italy, I imagined her a walking ghost just trying to nourish herself. The middle part was my favourite, though, with many parts that stick out vibrantly for me.
I know a little about depression as well, and I really took to her story of her climb out of a very confused place and into a clearer awareness. Eat Pray Love= Top stars. Thanks for the review.

Unknown said...

I liked the second part best as well, even though I had looked at it initially as the part I had to get through to get to the last portion of the book. There were a lot of things that took me by surprise in this book.

I'm looking forward to reading it again sometime in my life as well. And thank you, for the very thoughtful comment!