When I was in college, I worked at a little independent bookstore. I thought this would be my dream job, and in some ways it was, but it also exposed me to some distressing truths about the publishing industry. Every month I would ship boxes of remainders, books that hadn’t sold in years, back to their publishing houses. And those boxes would be filled with Nobel and Pulitzer and Booker prizewinners. Meanwhile, we were constantly reordering Nicholas Sparks books, and books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which always struck me as the sort of book everyone gave to their friends as a gag gift but no one ever read). Also: lots of copies of Eat, Pray, Love.
I had a special hatred in my heart for Eat, Pray, Love. I knew that it was a memoir about some privileged white lady divorcee’s trip to Italy, India, and Indonesia, to eat pasta and meditate and find herself or some shit like that. (As an Indian person, I felt particularly offended that the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, had gotten rich off writing about her experiences at an Indian ashram, although I couldn’t have explained why exactly that bothered me so much). I also knew that it had inspired dozens of knock-offs. Half of our bookstore’s travel section was comprised of white lady divorcee memoirs, and every time I had to shelve a new one I burned with righteous fury against Elizabeth Gilbert.
Naturally, a few years later I found myself in an airport in Rome, fresh out of reading material, with a nine hour flight ahead of me—and the only English language book in the airport bookstore was Eat, Pray, Love. I bought it with my last Euros and hunkered down for a good, long hate read. (Incidentally, hate reads aren’t a bad way to go when you’re on an airplane. Blind fury that some hack is raking in the millions is at the very least pretty distracting).
But to my total surprise… I liked it. And, while this really shouldn’t be the barometer for how much you enjoy a memoir…I liked Elizabeth Gilbert. She wrote honestly about her struggles with depression and her tanking romantic life, but that wasn’t really the draw (plenty of people do that, and it doesn’t necessarily make for good reading). She wrote about India, and Indonesia with great affection but without the dewey-eyed, dehumanizing sentimentality that Westerners sometimes have for third world countries. But mainly, I liked her because she was self-deprecating, and open to new experiences. And funny.
About her divorce:
For the longest time, against the counsel of all who cared about me, I resisted even consulting a lawyer, because I considered even that to be an act of war. I wanted to be all Gandhi about this. I wanted to be all Nelson Mandela about this. Not realizing at the time that both Gandhi and Mandela were lawyers.
About her rebound relationship:
I was despondent and dependent, needing more care than an armful of premature infant triplets. His withdrawal only made me more needy and my neediness only advanced his withdrawals, until soon he was retreating under fire of my weeping pleas of, “Where are you going? What happened to us?” (Datiing tip: Men LOVE this.)
Gilbert’s style in Eat, Pray Love is exuberant and conversational (not exactly the kind of writing that wins literary awards). Still, I appreciated her descriptions of her mental state, and found some of them to be quite moving.
..the lending of a hand from me to myself when nobody else is around to offer solace—reminds me of something that happened to me once in New York City. I walked into an office building one afternoon in a hurry, dashed into the waiting elevator. As I rushed in, I caught on unexpected glimpse of myself in a security mirror’s reflection. In that moment my brain did an odd thing—it fired off this split-second message: “Hey! You know her! That’s a friend of yours!” And I actually ran forward toward my own reflection with a smile, ready to selcome that girl whose name I had lost but whose face was so familiar. In a flash instant, of course, I realized my mistake…But for some reason that incident comes to mind again tonight during my sadness in Rome, and I find myself writing this comforting reminder at the bottom of the page: Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend.
Gilbert’s a good writer. Even when her prose comes out as overly dramatic or new-agey, she’s good at setting up her anecdotes and describing the world around her. Her personality also lends itself to this sort of memoir—a classic extrovert, she’s quick to make friends in every setting and is clearly interested in what other people have to say. This is a book that could have been unbearable in its navel-gazing; but because of Gilbert’s sheer delight in meeting random strangers (and eating new things with them), instead it all comes across as a cheerfully goofy travelogue. While this usually isn’t my genre of choice, I’m reminded that when you’re in the hands of someone who can write well, they can write about just about anything and it will hold your attention.
Case in point: inspired by my unlikely affection for Eat, Pray, Love, I dipped my toe back into the “heartbroken white lady travels to find herself” genre and read How to Be Single by Liz Tuccillo. This turned out to be a true hate read. Tuccillo was a writer on Sex in the City, and this is her first work of fiction, featuring a 38-year-old single New Yorker who travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia, as well as France, Iceland, China, and Australia, to see what life is like for single girls around the world (Tuccillo traveled to these countries herself as research for the book). The beginning of the book is actually rather promising. The main character starts off by explaining why she is single and why her various girl friends are single, and there’s an unflinching honesty in that section that reminds you that Sex in the City was once a good show about the difficulty of human connection as opposed to an advertisement for Manolo Blahniks. That section doesn’t last long. As soon as the main characters boards a plane the book descends into a slew of chick lit clichés. More than that, there’s something deeply off-putting about the main character’s journey; I got the impression that Tuccillo learned very little in her travels). Her main character exhibits very little curiosity about how other people live their lives (despite that being her alleged reason for going abroad). The only connection she makes with another human being is when she embarks on an affair with a married man she meets in Italy. (She seems utterly stunned when this doesn’t turn out for the best). Other than rendez-vousing with her married lover in several different cities around the globe, she makes small talk with a few of the natives and comes up with some shallow, sweeping observations about what relationships are like in other countries. The book ends with her in a hot spring in Iceland with all of her friends, concluding that she has learned that she must love herself. It’s fundamentally dishonest about relationships, about friendships, about learning things. It left me wondering how you can love yourself when your self is repugnant.
Still, I’m glad I read How to Be Single, if only because it made me appreciate the fact that Gilbert was actually able to pull off Eat, Pray, Love. While I don’t think you should judge a book’s worth based on how much you like a main character (as Claire Messud has pointed out, does enjoying Lolita depend on how much you like Humbert and Humbert?), I think that the qualities that set Gilbert apart as a “character” are the same qualities that make her a compelling writer—she has a certain self-awareness, and a genuine interest in other people, that serve her and her story well.
(My previous post was a link to one of Gilbert’s early short stories. The tone is utterly different than what she employes in Eat, Pray, Love, which is neat–it’s nice to be reminded that a writer can have that kind of versatility.)