Holy cannoli

Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat Pray Love

Sweet success: Liz Gilbert, author of The Last American Man,went abroad to taste the spiritual life.

“Inner peace is not a destination, like: ‘Here’s a picture of me on top of the mountain of Inner Peace – I finally got there on September 28, 2005!’

“No, inner peace is a process,” reveals author Elizabeth Gilbert. Her just-released book, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (Viking, 2006), gets up-close-and-personal with that process, following a year’s journey around the world.

Though the intent is to find some semblance of balance, Gilbert doesn’t speak in parables of Confucius-isms. “I’m not ‘Laminated Woman,’ all paved over with permo-enlightenment. I’m just a wobbly human being, working it out, like everyone else, moment to moment,” Gilbert admits during an interview with Xpress.

Instead, Eat is more of a conversation – mainly between the author and her inner guide, if you will – or a detailed letter, or a well-tended journal.

But one writer’s internal musings (not to mention a vow of celibacy for the year abroad) can be hard to translate to a wide readership.

The pursuit of happiness

“Gilbert relates this chapter of her life with a compelling, richly detailed narrative that eschews the easy answers of New Age rhetoric,” Penguin Reading Guide fawns.

The author of The Last American Man and the 1997 GQ article “The Muse of Coyote Ugly Saloon” (which spawned the eponymous movie), Gilbert certainly has the chops to craft prose. Eat is a different beast, though. It’s not fiction, and it’s not about someone else. So, bravely, she begins her tale with her own divorce – a heartbreaking circumstance that eventually results in her need to travel.

This sadly common experience lends the book a level of validity: Not everyone can relate to spending four months in an ashram in India, but most of us have been touched by divorce in some way. At times, however, Gilbert’s very reason for embarking on the journey tends to bog down the book’s progress – we get too many teary nights of her rehashing old wounds and missing lost loves.

But Gilbert defends her period of putting herself first. “I think there’s a difference between self-indulgence and self-care. … This was a long and careful process in regaining something I’d lost – ownership and comprehension of my own being,” Gilbert says in our interview. “It’s funny – I think Americans have a particularly nervous reaction when somebody does this, whereas all the Italians that I met were more like, ‘Go for it!’ In that culture, I think, it’s more accepted that humans need to pursue happiness; that this is, in fact, an obligation in our lives.”

Indeed, it’s on the first leg of her journey – Rome – where the author writes, “All I had to do was ask myself, every day, for the first time in my life, ‘What would you enjoy doing today, Liz? What would bring you pleasure right now?’”

Getting personal with God’s thigh

Not all reviewers, however, boarded the pleasure cruise. “An unsuccessful attempt at a memoir from novelist and journalist Gilbert … lacks the sparkle of her fiction,” opines Kirkus.

“I would call this book more of a chronicle than a memoir,” Gilbert notes. “It’s not my whole life story; I’m way too young for that.”

She continues, “There’s definitely a prejudice against memoirs these days, from an elite literary point of view – the argument being that it’s not as hallowed an art form as, say, fiction – but I think the fact that these autobiographical stories are so popular speaks to a need that people have these days to know the truth, to see their own lives reflected in the lives of others, and to look for comprehension that way.”

It’s in this spirit of truth-seeking that the author traverses her own spiritual path. “What worked yesterday doesn’t always work today. Prayers can become stale and drone into the boring familiar if you let your attentions stagnate,” she solemnly writes in the third of the book dedicated to a stay in her unnamed guru’s ashram in Western India.

And then for balance – in Gilbert’s trademark wit – “The void was God, which means that I was inside God. But not in a gross, physical way – not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chunk of God’s thigh muscle.”

Make her one with everything

For this reader, it’s these moments of humor (and the book has plenty) that make it work. Add to that an ever-changing supporting cast (including Richard from Texas, who offers such colloquial one-liners as “You gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone oughtta be”), along with the author’s own wisecracking insights into the culture – “The staff is Balinese, which means they automatically start adoring you and complimenting you on your beauty as soon as you walk in” – and you have something utterly readable.

Not that Eat doesn’t have its frustrating moments. When Gilbert eschews the temptations of sexy Italians in favor of weeping over a marriage gone sour, it’s hard not to want to shake her. After all, half of all marriages end in divorce – but few divorces culminate in the tropical paradise of Bali (a trip paid for, by the way, with a handsome advance). But even though she decides to stay in the ashram for the full four months of her time in India – an adventure-filled trek to the Himalayas might’ve made for better reading – it’s also hard not to cheer for the heroine when she finally makes strides in her quest for enlightenment.

“You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it …” Gilbert asserts near the book’s end – a revelation possibly fueled, at least in part, by a new romance with a suave Latino.

Yes, after most of a year and three countries, there’s sex. And, if Gilbert’s recent love-infused articles in magazines like Allure are anything to go by, she’s still all hot and heavy with the Brazilian she calls “the sexy fox.”

“We’ve been to Bali and Brazil and Australia in the last two years, and I think that will continue, along with other travels,” the writer happily says of her current relationship. “He’s an amazing traveler, lives very light in this world, and I love following his example of keeping your life small and inexpensive enough that you can pick up and move whenever you want to or need to.”

Elizabeth Gilbert discusses Eat, Pray, Love at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.) on Wednesday, March 1. 7 p.m. Free. 254-6734.


About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.