I have to admit that I felt a twinge of embarrassment on the subway when I opened Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which is currently No. 1 on the New York Times paperback best-seller list. It is precisely the sort of inspirational story of one woman’s journey to recovery that I would never expect myself to pick up in a bookshop. Were I to summarize the plot, many discerning and skeptical readers would immediately put it back on the shelf. Eat, Pray, Love begins with Gilbert in her early 30s, crying on the floor of a bathroom of a big suburban house because she realizes that she does not want to have a child; she divorces her husband, falls dramatically to pieces, and then travels around the world. Along the way, she finds god in an ashram in India, big plates of pasta in Italy, and triumphs over her severe depression. Doesn’t it sound awful? It is not.
Admittedly, the memoir is constructed with a certain amount of artifice. As one gathers from her catchy title, Gilbert orchestrates her recovery in three parts: She goes to Italy to experience pleasure, India to explore spirituality, and Indonesia to find something she calls balance. In real life, of course, one doesn’t often get to structure one’s emergence from a black period quite so neatly. But the artificiality of the venture doesn’t matter. If the journey is fake in certain ways—too willed, too self-conscious—within all the fakeness a real evolution occurs. The rubric of travelogue gives Gilbert, an insightful, disarming, joyous writer, enough time, enough quirky situations and settings, to dramatize a fascinating and turbulent period of life. Her true engagement with the outside world, her tiny observations about everything from the Balinese response to divorce to Italian men eating cream puffs after watching sports, reinvigorate the more conventional arc of her recovery story. She takes the shopworn narrative of depression and instills it with liveliness, which is in itself such a strange and refreshing endeavor that we end up liking her.
Before Gilbert’s marriage fell apart and she began her epic travels, she led a fairly conventional life: She had a husband, two homes, a successful writing career, and was contemplating having a child. All of this structure, this safety, breaks down rather abruptly, and she seems, as she relates it, to fall exotically out of regular life.
While she is in Rome, Gilbert decides to be celibate since she has careered from one relationship to another since her late teens. As she puts it: “How many different types of men can I keep trying to love, and continue to fail? Think of it this way—if you’d had ten serious traffic accidents in a row, wouldn’t they eventually take your driver’s license away? Wouldn’t you kind of want them to?” Abandoning her breakfasts of yogurt and wheat germ, she eats so much gelato and pasta that she happily gains 15 pounds. This is the pure, concentrated idea of Italy that she has come to find. But the most telling anecdote from this phase of her trip is that she goes to a lingerie store and buys herself huge amounts of exquisite lingerie that no one will see. It is in these rogue details, in the accidental glimpses of recovery, that the more interesting story of the book is told. Beneath the official itinerary of redemption, Gilbert gets better slowly, and she is a smart enough writer to show us how.
One of the many dangers of the spiritual journey as a genre is that of taking oneself too seriously, and Gilbert is, if anything, almost too aware of this: She is trying very hard to make friends as she writes, to win over skeptics, and probably buy them a drink at the bar. As she points out on the ashram: “It’s been amazing for me to discover that even here, even in a sacred environment of spiritual retreat on the other side of the world, I have managed to create a cocktail-party-like vibe around me.” She has a fantasy of being known as “the Quiet Girl” in the Ashram, but she can’t quite bring herself to abandon her chattiness. And it is, in a sense, as the failed Quiet Girl at the ashram that Gilbert narrates this book.
Gilbert’s charm and self-deprecation largely defuse any prejudice against her self-reflection and complicate and ironize the spiritual journey she presents. “Here I am in this sacred place of study in the middle of India and all I can think about is my ex-boyfriend? What am I, in eighth grade?” Her writing can border dangerously on cuteness. At times, one is aware of her trying too hard to be liked; one feels the belabored mechanism of her jokes. But there is an undeniable intimacy in her tone, an authentic effort toward honesty that disarms criticism. She is after the kind of connection with the reader that you have with someone you sit next to on a plane, to whom you tell your life story, and never see again.
And there is a lightness of touch here that belies the earnestness implicit in her quest. Gilbert has the impressive and fairly unusual ability to make fun of herself and be serious all at the same time. In some sense this dual perspective, this irony and seriousness mingled together, re-energizes the formal strategies of the memoir; it lets air into the claustrophobic story of recovery: “The bathroom, always the bathroom! Heaven help me, but there I am in a bathroom again, in the middle of the night again, weeping my heart out on the floor in loneliness. Oh, cold world—I have grown so weary of you and all your horrible bathrooms.” There is a predictable self-pity that we expect to find in books of this ilk; Gilbert complicates and plays with it, rather than delivering the pure hackneyed form. In the end, self-revelatory memoir is only as good as the writing: and maybe, to rise above the inherent self-indulgence, and our innate resistance to the spectacle it creates, it has to be better than the average first novel. In this particular case, it is.
So why then is my affection for Eat, Pray, Love so furtive? In part it is because of the inevitable arc of recovery built into the story. When I picked up Eat, Pray, Love, with its pretty, inviting cover, I was reaching for a happy ending: There would be no book if Gilbert returned from her travels tanned but confused. The memoir lacks the ambiguity we associate with a more literary effort. It feels like there is something inherently trashy about reading for that redemption, for a happyish ending in a tropical place. But there is a rich and compelling strand here: a story of how Gilbert goes from a very serious depression to being basically all right that has nothing to do with pasta and gurus. How does one get better? If one has the stamina to narrate the process, to write frank and chatty postcards from this immensely difficult transition, then one is in fact putting rare and valuable information out into the world. And so I would say for summer, Eat, Pray, Love is a transcendently great beach book.