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.