Thursday, December 27, 2007

Eat Pray Love: A Journey of Extraordinary Privilege

I got a copy of Eat Pray Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia for Christmas, for obvious reasons. It's a very.... tricky book. On the one hand, it's not at all bad. Sure, it's written in the easy-on-the-eyes, slangy chick-lit style; there are a few awkward, presumptive statements about groups of people (e.g. "The staff is Balinese, which means they automatically start adoring you and complimenting you on your beauty as soon as you walk in"); but it's never boring. For what it's worth, Eat Pray Love is quick-paced and quick-witted.

The trouble comes in what author Elizabeth Gilbert leaves out of her narrative. Most of the leaving-out comes in the early part of the book, in which she describes her life before she jets off on this intense journey of "finding herself."

Gilbert writes, early on, a description of herself as "the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper and the social coordinator and the dog-walker and the wife and the soon-to-be mother, and -- somewhere in my stolen moments -- a writer."

A description of Everywoman, right? How many people do you suppose cooed with identification at that particular paragraph, and then sighed with envy a few pages later when we learn that Gilbert's bright idea to write a book about traveling netted her enough advance money to finance her entire trip?

Except... it's not like that. Elizabeth Gilbert is not an "in my stolen moments" kind of writer. She's a professional one, with a list of magazine publications as long as my arm and four successful previous books.

One publication in particular you might recognize, though you're probably unaware of its source. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote the autobiographical piece that later became the film Coyote Ugly.*

So, right from the beginning, we're not dealing with Everywoman. We're dealing with a woman who has already been played on-screen by Piper Perabo, and who will soon be played again by Julia Roberts.

There must be a Guinness World Record for that.

Likewise, when Gilbert makes references to her sister, Catherine, she never mentions she's talking about Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of Dairy Queen, The Off Season, and Princess Ben. (The two of them recently collaborated on an editorial for the New York Times on how wonderful it is to be sisters, and writers.)

There are little things, little unmentioned things sprinkled throughout the novel that grate against the skin -- things like Gilbert in Italy receiving continual visits from friends who have flown across the Atlantic Ocean for the express purpose of seeing her. A coterie of the well-heeled, as it were, who have the capacity for such travel.

Gilbert even admits, on her website, that she was only able to do what she did because of a past history of accomplishment and privilege. That's straightforward, and I appreciate it. I wish there were a bit more of it in her book. (I'm not putting the link to Elizabeth Gilbert's website because the last thing I want to do is encourage animosity, should she read this. You can find the site on your own. Once you're there, read the FAQ.)

And yet I found myself liking this book. In some sections, really liking it. I know why, though. It's because Gilbert promises hope. Someday, she writes, if you meditate, you too will see the mind of God. Someday, you too may be wooed by a charming man who offers you the world and then delivers. Someday, you too will find this kind of peace.

Can it happen if you aren't already successful and/or privileged? I hope so.

*But wait, you'll say. Wasn't Jersey in Coyote Ugly poor? Non-privileged? That's where the book differed from its source material, and for good reason. Gilbert took the Coyote Ugly job to earn quick cash and bank enough for a trip around the world (it's all explained on her website). Her parents were not working-class; they owned a Christmas tree farm in Connecticut, and Gilbert herself was never in danger of poverty or homelessness.

Other reviews of Eat Pray Love are here, here, here, and of course, Niranjana's.


PeaceBang said...

Thanks for linking to my review! Peace out.

Niranjana said...

When I reviewed EPL early last year, I had no suspicion it was going to explode into such a phenomenon... I think it works best when read on its own terms--as a writer's travelogue/memoir, rather than a you-can-do-it-too self-help text for the Citizens of Humanity :)

Blue said...

Peacebang -- thanks! Your blog is teh cool.

Niranjana -- you're probably right. Unfortunately the marketing is skewing it entirely towards self-help. People blog about putting "the Eat Pray Love principles" into action, etc. :P

(Maybe all I need is to create some "Pretty Blue Salwar principles" that people can put into action.)