Committed

I think I must be the last woman left in the Western hemisphere who hasn’t read Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, or even seen the film. It’s not that I think it will be bad, not at all, I own a copy, in fact. But I have a little trouble reading something when everyone else is reading it. It can be hard to have an innocent opinion when a book becomes a fashionable arbiter of taste. For instance, on a much bigger scale, we will never know now whether Dan Brown really is a bad author or not, because the mere mention of his name is a trigger for readers to align themselves with certain camps of thought. It’s a question we’ll have to come back to in a decade or so (and in fact whether we do or don’t return to it will be an answer in itself). Eat, Pray, Love hasn’t quite reached such iconic heights yet, but it’s not far off. Rather than have my reading experience consumed by the question of whether it was worth all the fuss, I was delighted when Mister Litlove gave me her follow-up book, Committed, to try instead.

So this book picks up where Eat, Pray, Love leaves off, with Elizabeth Gilbert in a fulfilling relationship with the 55-year-old, balding gem merchant, Filipe from Bali (this has to be love; that is not the description of your average romantic hero). Like her, he’s been through a devastating divorce and both of them are determined to pursue their love affair with plenty of space and freedom, crossing the world regularly to be together, with brief three-month stints of co-habitation in Philadelphia where Gilbert is based. Only this delightful arrangement is brought to a halt when Filipe is detained at the airport on one of their arrivals in America, and deported. It is not permitted for foreigners to keep entering the country on three-month visas, and having overstepped the mark, he is no longer welcome in the States. The only possible solution to this is if he and Gilbert marry, but the process will be a torturous and lengthy one while they are investigated by the American authorities, on the grounds of demanding immigration laws.

Elizabeth and Filipe make the best of things, heading out to Asia where they can live cheaply in exile until their situation is resolved. And with a lot of unexpected time on her hands, Gilbert decides to conduct some research into marriage and its history, to come to terms with this institution that has so disappointed her.

I have to say this book impressed me enormously. Gilbert comes up with a wide variety of perspectives on marriage, all of them fascinating, and she blends social history, politics, personal anecdote and travel stories with finesse. The key to understanding marriage across the millennium is to see how flexible and elastic it has been. At basis, it has been important within society because it organizes financial assets and property, but then it has picked up all sorts of extras along the way – religious strictures, for instance. Gilbert points out that early Christianity was against marriage altogether, because the belief was that only pure, celibate types could be spiritually enlightened. Gilbert remembers the anguish that she went through when her first marriage failed, feeling obscurely that she had sinned, and wished that she had known how unbothered those early Christians had been about vows.

But of course the huge seismic changes that have occurred in marriage have happened very recently, and concerned the issues of love and choice. For most of its existence, marriage has been a business arrangement, still is, as Gilbert finds out, in many of the isolated villages she visits in Thailand and Vietnam. And as such, it always lasted rather well – the importance of keeping assets within a community was sufficient incentive to work out those tricky problems of compatibility, one way or another (giving women no right to complaint was effective). But as soon as women moved down the route of independence, as soon as they could be financially autonomous, then marriage had to be about choice and love, because there was no way to hold women in the arrangement otherwise. Alas, love is a complex and impermanent emotion, and unions made in love all too often fall foul of love’s demise. Allowing couples choice, means accepting the inevitability of divorce. But it has also meant the arrival of much idealism and excessive expectations.

Gilbert wonders how marriage can possibly carry the burden that is placed upon it nowadays, when the supposed point of a partner is to be our everything, to make us happy and fulfilled, to embody the spirit of romance. We live isolated in our happy-ever-afters, far away from the extended network of family and friends our ancestors enjoyed, dependent on one another to an unhealthy degree. Looking back she sees that her first marriage undoubtedly suffered from the weight of expectations that were not backed up with hard relationship graft. Gilbert’s honesty about herself is often eloquent and moving, and the chapter that touched me most deeply concerned the hand that women get dealt in marriage, particularly when children are part of the equation. She describes how her own mother held down a job she loved when her children were small, until the day that both her daughters caught chicken pox. Gilbert’s mother was supposed to be attending a convention for work, but when she asked her husband if he would take two days off to care for the children, he refused. In response, her mother gave up her job, understanding that domestic life would never run smoothly unless she did. Gilbert wonders what drives women to accept the degree of self-sacrifice that they do, and admits openly that she herself is incapable of it.

This isn’t a generation thing, by the way. Talking about the book with Mister Litlove, he was obliged to admit that he would also have refused to take two days off work to care for our son when he was small. I remember this period of our lives all too well. University lecturing was stressful enough, but on top of that I lived in fear that our child would start to exhibit signs of illness – a flu meant a week off school for him and a nightmare struggle for me to rearrange my working life. There was no justice to this; the division was made because I was a woman, and as such my career was not as important as my husband’s. Do you think I liked this? Of course I didn’t, and it made me think much the less of Mister Litlove for a long while. But I went along with it because someone had to give, and my tolerance for brinksmanship, my stubbornness was unequal to his when it came to childcare. And then there have been all the times when I, the one with chronic fatigue, would be bustling about cooking and cleaning and trying to get some work done, while my husband and son watched television. Marriage can so quickly become unequal, a system of silent transactions that carry all kinds of negative emotions – resentment, jealousy, mistrust – all the better for not being spoken aloud. Like people in any long marriage, Mister Litlove and I have behaved badly and had our painful conversations, all very un-Hollywood, and it was only through surviving such times that we became a couple with a chance at a future together.

This is the effect of Gilbert’s book; it makes you to consider your own life, and those of the friends and family around you. Her vivid emotional honesty encourages you to look clear-sightedly at yourself, and the range of information she provides, as well as the stories she tells, provide a rich tapestry of experiences against which to measure your own. She writes with astonishing readability, never descending into dry, factual prose and this was definitely one of the most enjoyable non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. If this is what Elizabeth Gilbert is like then I will definitely reach out for my copy of Eat, Pray, Love later this year.

34 thoughts on “Committed

  1. I agree. I liked both this and Eat, Pray, Love, found her intelligent, honest, interesting and very readable. I really enjoyed the film with Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem too – well written, directed and acted and not at all cheesy. I read the widespread sarcastically dismissive remarks a bit sadly and suppose Elizabeth Gilbert is victim of her own huge success – worse things to be a victim of, of course. My blogger friend Tamar in Philadelphia posted a nice account of meeting Elizabeth and ‘Felipe’ a few months ago: http://tamarika.typepad.com/mined_nuggets/2010/08/attraversiamo-.html Nice to hear about a real-life happy ending.

  2. You’re not the only woman to not have read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, I haven’t either! Like you, I have been a bit reluctant to read this. Last year it seemed like evryone was reading this novel and I just assumed that it was a load of over sentimental nonsense.

    However after your review, I may give one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel a try. Great review!

  3. I love the point you made about it being impossible to tell if Brown et al are actually good writers at this point in time. I haven’t read Eat Pray Love yet for similar reasons to yours, but now I’m hugely interested in this, particularly because of the focus on the social history of marriage. Also, what you said about the burden that is placed on marriage today, when two partners are expected to be everything to each other, reminded me of a recent post I loved at a friend’s blog. I think you might enjoy it as well: here

  4. I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, either, so you’re not the last (and for similar reasons), but I’m impressed enough by your response to her next book to think about reading it!

  5. A moving post especially towards the end.
    I also couldn’t read 2 world bestsellers; The Kite Runner & The Bookseller of Kabul, when so many others including bookstores, were celebrating these titles. It was years later, that I picked up the latter and discovered for myself, what an intriguing memoir that was. I was glad though, for the freedom of silent, solitary reflections that I had afforded myself.

  6. Incredible review! Whoa! I have read Eat, Pray, Love and it will go down in history for me as one of the best books I’ve ever read…the in depth treatment it sounds like Gilbert gives marriage in Committed seems like the same in depth treatment she gives religion and finding you “self” in Eat, Pray, Love. I think you would enjoy it. I have not, however, seen the movie…on purpose. I do not trust Hollywood to not color my reading of this book.

  7. For the same reasons you mentioned, I still haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love or seen the movie. Granted, I’m a bit more tempted to see the movie than reading the book. Ok, it does have Javier Bardem in it so what can I say!😉

    Really glad to hear you liked Committed and I’m going to add this one to my list after reading your review.

  8. I understand exactly what you mean about these much-talked-about books. I find that if I can’t get to it right away, before they’re everywhere, I have to wait a couple of years at least.

    I think, too, you might have done yourself a service by reading this one first. Having read Eat, Pray, Love, which I liked but didn’t love, I would have approached this book with a big shovel full of skepticism, only because her account of her first marriage’s breaking up didn’t seem to add up to me. She may have been trying to be respectful and keep some baggage out of the public eye, but it ended up looking a little suspicious, I’m sorry to say. So I’d have my hackles raised when it comes to her views on marriage. I’m glad, though, that it was a good read for you. It sounds like it touches on some important things to think about, as do your reflection in the penultimate paragraph.

  9. I’m so glad you liked this book, because I’ve been afraid to read it after seeing some bad reviews. I really loved Eat, Pray, Love, though, and want to like this one as well. It sounds like I might! I know what you mean about not wanting to read the books everyone else is reading; I feel a little wrong saying I loved EPL because so many other people do too, but … oh, well. I’ll work on getting over that🙂

  10. I can tell you exactly why Dan Brown is a bad writer… I just narrowed it down to his description of Paris. Paris is my hometown… I know the place, believe me. If he hadn’t done a lot of name dropping, no one, absolutely no one, would recognise the place to be Paris… The way he describes it is so unspecific… Replace all the important place names with names of tourits attractions from Rome and people wouldn’t do Dan Brown-Paris but Rome-tours + he is deadly boring…
    Sorry I had to vent. Will comment on rest later. Very interesting post.

  11. Yes, that is what Elizabeth Gilbert does, she makes you look at your own situation, think about it and explore it. That is why I loved Eat, Pray, Love. I often disagreed with her but she provokes in a good way. You might find it very interesting as well. What I deplored at the time when it came out is that it gets all this attention while there are hundreds of similar and often better accounts out there that nobody reads…
    Thanks for this review, I think I would like to read the book as well. And thanks for making this such a personal post. Very moving.

  12. LL, I am so happy you reviewed this. Because it sounds like just the book that L and I should be reading (after the whole wedding circus is over)! It’s so unromantic to be going into a wedding with mixed feelings about the institution itself (and that’s where a social history comes in really useful). And I appreciate your honesty as always in sharing with us aspects of your life too. So a big thank-you, my friend.🙂

  13. Glad you liked it. Committed is definitely a more mature book than E,P,L. What the latter did was tap into millions of women’s desire to escape: who wouldn’t want to give up the everyday and the ordinary to travel the world having fabulous experiences? Having done with her escaping in her first book, Gilbert gets on with living in the real world in her second. I found her insights into marriage fascinating and as you say, they made me look at the relationships around me with extra interest.

  14. That is what Elizabeth Gilbert is like, Eat Pray Love is just the same.🙂 I like her because even though she seems a bit crazy, she knows when she’s being crazy and tries not to let it affect her loved ones; and she also has a sense of humor about it. I think the backlash against the book has had a lot to do with Gilbert as a type (whiny privileged Western woman with whiny privileged Western problems coopting Eastern spirituality — which I think is an unfair characterization of her), rather than with her actual book and views and behavior.

  15. I quite fancied ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, but was put off by its popular ascendency, but your comments on this book make me think both books would be well worth a try. Of course, here in the outlands I didn’t even know there was a film, not that it would have tempted me more than the book. It’s so kind to let us overhear your marriage and reassuring to hear that like so many, say surely most, it is ‘un-Hollywood’ and from here ditto. I realise now that it is the ability, however it’s done, to weather the frustrations and resentments, that makes it possible to persist in the most important things, probably not the most immediate awareness that the younger man has in life. Cheers.

  16. I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love either. I’ve picked it up at the bookstore, flipped through it, and then put it down a couple of times. I am suspicious of “best sellers” and am often disappointed by them. A lot of comments here make me think I should give it a try…maybe a copy from the library.

  17. I haven’t read Gilbert’s books yet either, for reasons including but not limited to the one you name at the start of this post. I just wanted to agree with your hesitation to read what everyone else is reading! For one thing I don’t want to fight lines of people to read the latest bestseller; and a good book (unless it’s moment-to-moment political commentary, which I don’t read much of!) will be good in a year or two when everyone else is less excited, and there are stacks available in the used bookstore. I share your concern about having one’s reception skewed by public hubbub. Thanks.

  18. Well now that you’ve read it, LL, that makes ME the last person in the Western world who hasn’t. I loved EPL. Gilbert does a great job ‘exploring’ emotions and humanity. This one is on my list, especially after your review. Thanks!

  19. Oh, I am in the midst of reading a book (The Book Thief) that I have been putting off forever due to its popularity (and would still be putting off if it weren’t for a book discussion group), and I am kicking myself for this stubborn streak in me that hates to read what’s popular, because it is (at least halfway into it) a fantastic book. (Sometimes, though, that stubborn streak is very right, like when I read The Kite Runner — also for a book discussion group). You already know that I (on some levels, against my will) loved Eat, Pray, Love. Last year, I leaped at Committed when I found it on our local library’s shelves. However, it was not a good time for such leaping. I started it, knew it was a book I was going to love, but just didn’t have time to read it before it was due back, and we can’t renew books from the “new book” shelves, which is where I found it. I’m very much looking forward to reading it, though, even more so now that I’ve read your review. Marriage, to me, is a fascinating subject, and I know that one of the reasons I didn’t want to have children was that I was one of those women who would always be torn between job and kids and had no faith that any man would be willing to make the sorts of sacrifices women make. Now that I’ve been married for fifteen years, I know I was very unfair to assume that. Bob would probably have loved to be a stay-at-home dad, so a lot of that was probably more driven by society’s expectations than my actual husband (or any actual husband). As you say, such assumptions are the sort of things couples survive in order to have a chance at a future together. Oh, and I am very familiar with that whole cooking and getting dinner on the table while others are watching TV.

  20. I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love (it just doesn’t sound like my thing), but I’ve been quite curious about this one. Sounds like it’s worth picking up!

  21. I actually read EPL before it became such a stellar success. I had mixed feelings about it, but I think it was more me and my expectations than what the book offered. I actually saw the movie this weekend and while at first I again had mixed feelings, by the end I did appreciate it much more than I expected. It’s hard not to sympathize with someone who is very honestly looking for something when she discovers her life is just not working out the way she wants it to–I can really understand that disappointment. If nothing else the movie is visually gorgeous! I’m not sure I’ll read her second book, but your post certainly tempts me. I’m glad she seems to have found happiness and contentment.

  22. Jean – what a lovely post from your friend – she obviously had a wonderful time meeting EG and her husband. And I’m really pleased to hear you liked the film – that encourages me to see it. This is just what I mean about iconic books moving beyond proper critical judgment and into the realm of emotional reaction. The film would have had to be superb in order for it to avoid the nay-sayers.

    Karen – I’m delighted to find I’m not alone! But this was a well-written and interesting book, and knowing nothing about it in advance, I enjoyed it a great deal.

    Nymeth – what an interesting post, and I like its point very much indeed. It’s too easy to forget, or even to demonise all kinds of different relationships beyond the orthodox – and that means what’s culturally valid at any point in time. There is a lot of social history in Committed and I enjoyed it all – I’d love to know what you think of it.

    Lilian – so many of my friends haven’t read that book – how about that? But this one is very good, and I’d be most interested in your response. You’ve written very movingly about your experience with marriage on your blog.

    Susan – I am so glad to see you name The Bookseller of Kabul there – I had forgotten the name of that book but knew I was interested in reading it! And I agree that finding the right moment for a book is so important.

    Patti – I’m delighted to hear your enthusiastic recommendation of Eat, Pray, Love. I’m really looking forward to it! And I feel sure that you would enjoy this one – I was impressed by it on so many levels.

    iliana – lol! Javier Bardem was a smart casting move! I’d like to see the movie too, although will wait for it to come out on dvd as I don’t think my menfolk will want to go! I’d love to know what you think of Committed if you get hold of it!

    Teresa – I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love, obviously, but I do think that it’s difficult to write about real life relationships because they are so inexplicable. I know I’ve found myself saying and doing things that I absolutely could not justify to anyone else in a way that makes sense. I think they take place on the level of contradiction and vulnerability and so when they’re written about, unless they are very bland, they almost always sound crazy. But as I say, I haven’t read the book, and I might always have the same reaction as you if I did!

    Dorothy – I’m really delighted if you loved EPL! But you see what these famous books do – of course it doesn’t matter how many people loved it or hated it, although I entirely sympathise with your reaction. But do consider reading Committed – I’d love to hear your reaction.

    Caroline – lol! See, this is the Dan Brown effect. I read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping recently and hated her descriptions, found them opaque and awkward but I know she’s a really excellent writer. But there it is, you’re not alone in your dislike! Really pleased that you loved EPL, and if there are other books as good that deserve notice, you can always tell me about them and I’ll read them!🙂

  23. Pete – If you hadn’t turned up here I was going to email you to tell you to read this! I can’t think of a better book to read heading into a wedding. And I would love to know what you and L think of it and whether it gave you a new perspective on the institution of marriage. Well, I daresay you’re a bit busy right now, but do consider this at some point if you can!

    Charlotte – I do love it when my friends have read the same books and can give me the benefit of their insight! This is great to know. I’m moving against the grain in EG’s journey but I will certainly read that first book now.

    Jenny – that’s really interesting. I do feel that Americans have a ridiculously low tolerance for ‘whining’. I mean, life is far from perfect, and moaning is often what keeps me going! But then Europeans have a long and respectable tradition of melancholy to draw upon, and that helps. And all forms of spirituality have co-opted other forms of spirituality in their pasts to create and then found themselves, often rather willy-nilly. But I am so pleased to know you loved EPL, and I can certainly recommend Committed too (some lovely examples of crazy in it).

    Bookboxed – when I was young I was hopelessly idealistic and had no idea whatsoever that patience, tolerance and lot of tongue-biting were going to be the most important marriage skills I’d learn! And I only learned them after being forced to admit that my behaviour was far from pretty, often! If you felt like trying EG, have a go with Committed. I’d be very interested to have a man’s perspective on it!

    Grad – isn’t the library brilliant like that? You can try things out for free and see how you get on. I’d be very interested in your thoughts on Committed, and there is much here to enjoy.

    Pages of Julia – oh I hear you! If I can hold out for a book, then lots of cheap copies become available online, and I am a sucker for a cheap copy! As you so rightly say, the good ones last.

    Melissa – lol! I had no idea there would be so many people here who hadn’t read the book! But I’d love to know what you think of this one. She is an interesting writer for writers, I think, because she makes difficult things look very fluid and easy and I’m still trying to figure out how it’s done!

    Emily – even with the best husband in the world, children require masses of self-sacrifice, and I’m a big believer that children really have to be wanted or else the sheer effort involved in bringing them up is just too devastating. I have also held shy of The Book Thief, as I have a slight uncertainty about Holocaust novels (having had to read and teach them in the past and suffered for it). But isn’t it great that we have book clubs to make us read things that we might not otherwise! I can’t count the number of times an online club or challenge has introduced me to something fabulous I’d resisted or never heard of. I would love to know what you think of Committed – I’m completely with you in thinking that marriage is fascinating, not least because as I said to Teresa, I think long term relationships are completely inexplicable in their workings sometimes!

    Eva – I enjoyed it, and the travel elements of it add a really interesting dimension – I’d love to know what you think of it if you do get hold of it!

    Danielle – I was thinking of you as I read this and thought that parts of it might intrigue you. But it’s not like you don’t have enough to read over there! I’m really pleased to hear so many people enjoyed the movie – it’s hard to make a movie from a book, full stop, and so often they’re really disappointing. I’ll definitely watch it at some point now, but I’d like to read the book first. Thank you for your honest opinion. I really like to know.

  24. I’ll have to give this one a try. I read Eat,Pray, Love for my book club and found the whole thing a bit indulgent. My book club was pretty mixed with their reviews. This one sounds promising though and I look forward to reading it.

  25. I haven’t read Eat Pray Love for the same reasons as you! Committed sounds pretty good. Marriage is an interesting topic because of society and law and all the things we wrap it up in, dreams and assumptions, and all that. I might have to consider this book sometime as long as it doesn’t become as popular as EPL😉

  26. I also haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love (or seen the film), and I tend to read books on the late side, too – I’m about to start White Teeth by Zadie Smith now, a good decade after everyone else read it! Committed sounds interesting, though – I do like social history – so perhaps I’ll check it out.

  27. Ohoho that picture of a relationship where the woman just can’t hold out as long against untidiness rings true as I’ve seen it in a lot of my friends relationships. The men aren’t always being stubborn, or one upping, but they just don’t seem to notice that they should care. My defence against that kind of thing has always been to be happy in untidy places myself (it’s only the kitchen I’d have to clean up after a few weeks)but then I don’t have kids which is where it all gets so much trickier. You can’t just leave kids in the sink until someone else gets fed up and washes them!

    I love the idea of a book which really digs into how modern marriage has been shaped, as that sounds like someone taking the time to really consider an area that for a long time affected women more than men – a focus on womens lives in history is always welcome. However I read a quote from this book about Gilbert saying when she trys on a wedding dress she understands that all women should have the chance to wear something tailored perfectly and it seemed implied that only a wedding dress could fit the bill. Does that seems taken out of context? I love to watch others get married, but it’s not for me and I don’t want to end up reading a book that wants to advance why women who don’t think marriage is for them are wrong.

  28. You are not alone. I have not read the book, nor seen the movie. I tend to be automatically turned off of things that are trumpeted from the rooftops of media frenzy as “wonderful” and “iconic.” I guess I’m just contrary that way. I suppose that backing away from anything that is on Oprah’s Book List is probably overly anti-popularity.

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