So, I’ll admit it. I loved Eat, Pray, Love. In fact, dare I say it is one of my favorite books? Now, I wouldn’t suggest announcing this to a group of scholarly graduate students or professors. I would go with a safe answer, something along the lines of The Great Gatsby or anything written by Joyce Carol Oates. Alas, I can no longer deny my fascination with Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, and here’s why:
When I read Eat, Pray, Love for the first time, I did not read it because it was the trendy thing to do, nor did I realize the hype that would ensue around the book in the months to follow. A friend recommended it to me after I mentioned that I was in want of a summer read, something contemporary and well written, but nothing too dense. While I did not find it exceedingly life changing, (although I do know some women who would argue otherwise) I finished it with a smile and a few new favorite quotes.
It seems to me that the more popular things become, the more people want to bash them. As the memoir grew in popularity, so did the number of people who loved to hate it. I, however, think it’s unfair to toss Gilbert’s memoir aside as a narcissistic tale of a selfish, rich girl who should stop complaining, and start appreciating the life she has, regardless of the fact it is most certainly not the life she wants. I’m sorry, but what kind of screwed up rationale is that?
For years, grown men have been allowed to act like teenagers, buying expensive, candy red sports cars, donning too much “bling” around their necks, in their ears and on their clothing, and abruptly announcing to their wives one day over cereal that they are leaving them for someone who is half their age because well, they feel like it. Not only has society allowed this, we have accepted it as normal. We even labeled it—we call it a mid life crisis; and guess what—it can apply to women too.
If you haven’t noticed, men have been writing novels about their search for the meaning of life for decades now. So why the sudden societal freak out when the roles are reversed? Are women still expected to appear as though they have everything together, smile politely and speak softly, questioning nothing? I mean, this isn’t 1953, and we aren’t living in an episode of Mad Men. Women have wants and desires too, and I just can’t understand what everyone is so up in arms about when one of them decides to write a book about it. This isn’t the first time this has happened. Think, Erica Jong, Fear of Flying circa 1973, another controversial piece of literature by an uninhibited female writer. Fear of Flying was described by Henry Miller as a book that would “make literary history,” allowing women to “find their own voice and give us great sagas of sex, life, joy and adventure.”
I’m not saying I believe Gilbert’s book necessarily possesses the same amount of revolutionary courage as Jong’s novel, but isn’t Gilbert’s memoir exactly the type of story of self-discovery that Miller predicts? If we are still questioning the right of a woman to not know what she wants, and to (gasp) attempt to do something about it, I’m afraid we haven’t come quite as far as one would hope in the 30 years since Jong’s novel was published.
The movie version of Gilbert’s bestseller only seems to perpetuate the egotistical, self-indulgent view of Gilbert’s character. As a fan of the book I was excited yet skeptical of the movie. Would Hollywood only hone in on the romantic aspects the book offers the reader, and how would they deal with the internal struggles Gilbert faces as she contemplates ending her marriage? Well, simply put – they wouldn’t. In a scene where Gilbert tells her then husband, “I don’t want to be married,” I can’t imagine the audience feels much but confusion.
In the book Gilbert does not spend much time on what has led her to this moment of truth either, but what we do get is an understanding of a woman representative of the typical young American wife of today: a woman living in the suburbs with her charming husband in their beautiful home and, at thirty-one and after several years of marriage, preparing to embark on the inevitable next step of having a baby. The only problem is she isn’t preparing at all; she is scared shitless by even the thought of it—so scared in fact, it makes her doubt absolutely everything about this life she has created for herself, the kind we as children are taught to believe in without question. The kind of life we view as normal.
What I like about this character is her ability to question the norm. Yes, maybe it happens a bit too late to keep from hurting a man she once loved, and perhaps her method of solution is slightly selfish and self indulgent, but at the ripe old age of twenty-five, and the with idea of marriage a futile one at best, I can’t argue that I wouldn’t feel the exact same way as Gilbert does here, had I’d chosen to marry my college sweetheart and taken the road most traveled. And given that society today is much more forgiving of a twenty-something, single female than it was even ten years ago, I can’t help but wonder if my fate may have been the same as Gilbert’s given less desirable timing.
The film, on the other hand, takes Gilbert’s story and creates a woman who appears to be a spoiled, indecisive brat who runs away from her problems by basically quitting life. Later, when her new boyfriend, who she begins dating even before her divorce is finalized, tells her “you’re my hero” as the taxi pulls up to take her away to her “journey in search of everything,” I can’t help but question why. This version of Elizabeth is certainly nothing like the heroine I came to admire in the book. Did Ryan Murphy fail to read the beginning of the memoir or did he just simply choose to ignore it? Unfortunately it seems it was most likely the latter. In typical Hollywood form, the creators of the film have managed to take a heart wrenching story about a woman searching for the meaning of life, and yes, the meaning of self, into one about a silly, flighty, female who by the close of the two and a half hour movie, seems to have ended up right where she began in terms of her identity, if not location, as she is whisked away by yet another man and lead off into the sunset. It seems that all the important and introspective moments in the book are glazed over or otherwise not mentioned. It makes me wonder if those readers who have problems with the book are not reading it in much the same way as the movie portrays it.
Is this woman’s story extraordinary? Maybe not. But it does bring up some good points about life, love and the pursuit of something meaningful. So, call me narcissistic for being interested in my own happiness, but I can’t deny this as a truth, and I won’t criticize Gilbert for it either.