Listen—no matter what you’re doing right this minute or where you are in your life or what you think about God, gurus or, God forbid, finding yourself, Elizabeth Gilbert has been there, done that and come out the other side with the news that it really is all about the journey. In Eat Pray Love, Gilbert not only eats and prays her way to love, she fights, argues, laughs and cries. In the process, she makes her readers feel like old friends along for the sheer joy of her company.
Eat Pray Love is a chronicle of Gilbert’s journey from depressed divorcee to enlightened lover via a year spent first in Rome, next at an ashram in India and, finally, in Bali. While you may believe self-realization chronicles aren’t your thing, please, read on. Eat Pray Love is not your typical How I Found Myself memoir. Divided into three parts, 36 segments each, the book intentionally emulates the pattern of 108 beads on the japa mala, the traditional Indian prayer necklace. The organization is the final flourish in a book both beautifully written and perfectly realized.
I’m not one to rave about books. I’m a particular and demanding reader. I read as a writer, which means something can’t merely work for me—I have to figure out why it works. Eat Pray Love works because it’s gorgeous, generous, honest, heartwarming, open and engaging, but in addition to all these things, it is also laugh-out-loud funny. Here’s Gilbert’s translation of an elderly Roman soccer fan’s monologue as he watches his favorite player on the field:
It follows that the transcendence here (and there is transcendence) isn’t of the holier-than-thou, humorless variety. Rather it comes from someone named Richard the Texan, a former junkie and recovering alcoholic, who tells Gilbert at their ashram in India:
“Your ego’s job isn’t to serve you. Its only job is to keep itself in power. And right now, your ego’s scared to death, cuz it’s about to get downsized. You keep up this spiritual path, baby, and that bad boy’s days are numbered. Pretty soon your ego will be out of work, and your heart’ll be making all the decisions. So your ego’s fighting for its life, playing with your mind, trying to assert its authority, trying to keep you cornered off in a holding pen away from the rest of the universe.”
Even when the revelations come from within, Gilbert’s language keeps the lessons accessible and revelatory to the reader. Here she is as she rides her bike to visit her friend Ketut Liyer, a Balinese medicine man:
I keep remembering one of my Guru’s teachings about happiness. She says that people … tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fine weather if you’re fortunate enough. But that’s not 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. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it ...
Gilbert, a self-described “gregarious loner,” has the ability to make instant, lasting friendships wherever she goes, which is part of the charm of Eat Pray Love. Whether it’s her handsome young Italian “Tandem Language Exchange” tutor, the teenaged Indian girl with whom she washes the temple floors every day in India, or her beautiful but mysterious Balinese healer, she’s quick to share her deepest secrets—and learn others’ in the process.
Gilbert’s hopes for the book before she began her journey were as ambitious as the journey itself, but as with all books of self-discovery, the final product was far different from her expectations. She knew she wanted to go to those three countries, she says, but the things she did once she was there didn’t turn out as she expected. She planned, for example, to travel all ove India, but once there was surprised to find that it became much more about her personal journey.
“I had such big ideas for how I would find my visions in India,” Gilbert notes. “You know, those transcendental moments with my Guru. Instead, it was this Vietnam vet trucker former drug addict who managed to somehow parboil all the teachings of the Yogi into a package. And I didn’t expect to find love: I thought my time in Bali would mean spending time with Ketut Liyer, but then I got sideswiped by the Brazilian. I suppose the biggest difference is that I had no idea how much the journey would transform me, how much it would be a success. The lesson is that you’ll get your teachers, but not always in the form you expect.”
Writing the book, Gilbert says, was part (as Joan Didion has phrased it) “a way of finding out what I’m thinking” and part “a way of translating life, of taking experiences out of the ephemeral and digesting them, making them real.” Gilbert says that she believes her “job as a creative person is to pay very close attention to those creative signals and be responsive and obedient to them. I want to catch stories while they’re with me and honor them by telling them.”
Elizabeth Gilbert will appear at Bookworks on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at 7 p.m.