I have so many books in the queue to review that I must try and get through some of them by the end of the year, maybe with shorter reviews than usual. At least when it comes to Eat, Pray, Love, I don’t need to describe the book in any great detail, given I must be one of the last people on the planet to read it. What a strange, hybrid book it is, not in content, I suppose, as Elizabeth Gilbert spends four healing months in each of three different places: Italy, learning the language and eating, India, strengthening her spirit at an ashram and Bali, falling madly in love. No, it’s more the spirit itself that is oddly divided, the subtext that runs through her metaphysical and literal journeys. On the one hand, it’s an uplifting and encouraging book, testimony to the reassuring belief that you can improve your own life with willpower and a bit of luck, and on the other it’s like the worst round robin Christmas letter you ever got, a subtle but powerful piece of competitive achievement-listing, garnished with some implausible self-depreciation. I have no idea how Gilbert managed this, but it’s sort of inspirational and sick-making all at once.
So, where we begin is on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night with Liz having a meltdown because her husband wants children and she doesn’t. This is going to lead to a very unpleasant divorce and, running alongside it, a doomed affair of the kind that is fiercely compulsive but bad for all concerned. Which does indeed sound like a lot of unfortunate events all coming together. However, even on the bathroom floor, Liz finds she has a quiet inner voice of helpful pragmatism that is a kind of outsourcing of everyday divine wisdom. I think that Gilbert doesn’t want to bore us with her suffering – which is admirable of her, I’m sure. I think she doesn’t want her readers to worry about the extent to which we can all lose it magnificently in bad times. She wants to take those readers on a voyage of self-discovery that is essentially positive. But she does keep on plucking herself away from the precipice every time she nears it; she keep rescuing herself one way or another. And so it’s hard to get a clear idea of how bad her bad times have been, and how much is at stake in her decision to devote a year to sorting herself out. I understand that she wants us to know her pain but not to suffer it, but it muddies the water a bit.
Off she goes to Italy, to learn the language and to make new friends, because that is something she does splendidly well (good for her), and the food in Italy is so delicious that it’s enough to get her off medication. Let’s just say that this is not a book I’d recommend for anyone who was actually in the throes of a depression. It’s a most unconventional route back to health. I think maybe she means that some sort of loving self-indulgence, an embrace of things that make you genuinely happy and being generous to yourself with them, is a good antidote for the times when fate has had your back to the wall for what feels like forever. I think?
Then to the ashram where she discovers – someone who describes herself as bad at meditation – a great capacity for fabulous experiences with the divine. I mean, Liz Gilbert is often very funny at her own expense about the way she tries to avoid all the things she doesn’t enjoy at the ashram, and her descriptions of her spiritual experiences are very well done, very uplifting. I suppose it matters a great deal where you stand spiritually when you come to this section of the book. I tend to be with old Zizek (and Kafka, come to that) that there is a basic need for a Big Other – which might be God, or it might be a parent, or it might be an explanatory system, like science or literature – some major authority to give the appearance that there could be a meaning to life and it isn’t as much of a chaotic mess as it seems on the face of it. All conspiracy theories are essentially a belief in the Big Other, a conviction that someone is in charge and responsible, even though anyone who has worked in an office must surely know the reality of misinformation and total obliviousness that exists between all layers of an organization. Anyway, I digress. I come from a psychological angle, and am sure that after many hours spent in meditation, it is possible to reach new and intriguing states in the brain. Personally, I can’t quite bring myself to believe in any such entity as a god, though I would not for the world wish to offend anyone who did. For whatever reason, Liz leaves the ashram in pretty fine fettle, and the need for balance in life that she had assigned as her task in Bali looks somewhat redundant by now.
Bali is not a place that I want to visit.
It has been estimated that a typical Balinese woman spends one-third of her waking hours either preparing for a ceremony, participating in a ceremony or cleaning up after a ceremony. Life here is a constant cycle of offerings and rituals. You must perform them all, in the correct order and with the correct intention, or the entire universe will fall out of balance.’
Way too much responsibility! Gilbert is enchanted with Bali and wonderfully respectful of its ideology, whereas I wondered how it was possible for a whole island to raise OCD to the level of a religion. Gilbert talks about the charming spiritual beliefs the Balinese hold, like the fact you have four spiritual brothers who are there to keep your back at all times. I have a brother. We are very civilized now, but I remember our childhood, and I think one brother seems quite sufficient for me. I would have nightmares if I thought there were four of them behind my back, and I’ll bet they require a host of ceremonies too. Anyhow, none of this matters anyway as the point of Bali is Felipe, Gilbert’s great romance, and I really can’t be bothered to say anything about that.
No, it’s passages like this that tended to catch my eye:
Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don’t, you will leak away your innate contentment.’
I’m feeling exhausted already. Happiness, as a form of ultra-demanding work. I’m not sure that I need happiness to that extent. And I have this horrible feeling that bad things happen; they just do. Not because we didn’t work enough at it, or perform enough ceremonies with the correct intent. And I think that sometimes, however hard we try, we don’t master inner peace or find the answers we are looking for. These things are incredibly difficult to do; for most of us, we’ll need a lifetime to reach even a temporary resolution. For those of us with children, which I can understand Gilbert wanting to avoid, given her personal ideology, we just have these hostages to fortune, and there’s nothing to be done about it.
I am surprised at the extent to which this book is marketed as a women’s book, something you give your best friend. Well, if you want to send her the message that she’s been a bit grumpy lately and she should get off her backside and do something strenuous about it, I guess you do. But I would be hesitant to put this in someone’s hands who had suffered a series of misfortunes, as it says, essentially, that grief, mourning, re-grouping, life-changing development, all that is just a matter of putting your back into it! Well, ouch. If only it were.
And yet, Liz Gilbert seems to have proved to her own satisfaction that it is. And I do think she means terrifically well in her intentions to hand women back control over their misshapen, misguided lives. Seriously, it terrifies me, how determined she is that we all get back on track and find our personal nirvanas right here on earth. Given that I can’t even manage to write a short blog post when I intend to, I think I might not be the sort of disciple this book calls out for.
Wonderful review, and I *so* know this is not the book for me – it would make me very, very angry. There *are* events and things that happen in our life that are out of our control and we can’t always bounce back and be smiling. I’m afraid this just sounds terribly unrealistic to me. Plus anyone who promotes an OCD culture where women waste all that time in ritual is not someone I want to spend time with….!
I disliked this book for many of the reasons you describe above, although I love Italy and Buddhism and have even been known to meditate on occasion. I’m going to sound like a real old Scrooge talking about it. I suppose she means well, but this constant search for happiness and passion for memoir writing (rather than fiction) is rather wearisome.
This made me laugh! Exactly my reaction. Have you read After the Ecstasy, The Laundry by Jack Kornfeld?
Yay! This is the best (most respectful) ‘bad’ review of this book that I’ve read (particularly the ‘sick-making’ bit). I didn’t finish this book (practically unheard of for me) – just couldn’t… So self-indulgent. I started it when it was first released and even though ‘first world problems’ wasn’t a phrase then, the book is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about first world problems. And first world solutions!
I love this review! I’ve been quite disinclined to read this book despite having it recommended to me, and I think you’ve pretty much convinced me that my initial reaction is the right one or me. Love your comments on this 🙂
I have no intention of reading this after your review; it sounds ghastly! Also who says one should strive for happiness all the time and why can happiness not occur serendipitously? OK so there are some important messages out there about not (IF it is within your power to do so) wallowing in your own misery, but it does not sound as if this book is providing anything other than a black and white view of the world. Like “Kate W” I love your phrase “but it’s sort of inspirational and sick-making all at once.” ! P x
My friend Elissa thinks that “EPL” is the most amazingly offensive testament to white privilege and entitlement. I’ve never felt moved to disagree. 🙂
I heard part of this read on the radio and knew immediately that there was no way I could ever read it. The author’s approach to life is so diametrically opposed to mine that I wasn’t certain I would even understand it without a translation. I wasn’t certain we were the same species.
And I think had it not been for Julia Roberts I wouldn’t give two shits. I put it in the same category as Cheryl strayed’s Wild. Pass. Thanks for the review. Saved me a tenner 😉
You nailed it so completely! I too wasn’t convinced by the book, although I am usually pretty tolerant to self-help approaches that claim to have found the one great way to be happy. Even then I found her book so self-centered that her overperky tone of hers grated on my nerves.
I’ve never been tempted to read it, and now I feel vindicated. It was described to me as a “self-help” book, which is the death knell as far as I’m concerned. I think if one insists on “being happy” all the time, one is in for a bit of a let down. Can you imagine her being your best friend? Always in your face about it? Eee gad.
Like others here, I haven’t read this book because of the uncomfortable feeling that reading about it gave me. I do like the part where the person who is pulling herself up by her bootstraps has the money to travel all over the world. Sign me up for that kind of cure for ennui!
God, that passage about happiness meant everything to me when I first read this book — I was in the midst of the worst of my clinical depression, and trying to find a way to deal with it. I don’t know that I exactly wanted to be actively happy all the time, but I wanted there to be the possibility of happiness; and if I didn’t stay on top of my feelings 100% of the time, happiness was just never, ever going to happen. I’d be on the floor of my room crying every day.
Which isn’t to invalidate your reaction to it. Reading that passage as a normal, not-currently-depressed (thanks Zoloft!) person does make it sound exhausting. Only I do remember that I spent years of my life having to work and work and work at making it possible for me to access happiness. And I HAD to. It was either that or live my whole life in gray shades of miserable.
My first reaction to that happiness passage is the same as yours, how exhausting! But after reading the comments I can see how it all depends on where you are when you read it. Still, to me, happiness is not something one seeks directly but tends to be a consequence of choices in how we live our lives. The older I get the more I can see Solon’s point that you can’t know if you were happy until the end of your life. Personally, I find that aiming toward contentment often brings happiness along with it but trying to be happy just doesn’t work for me.
I loved it when I read it but there were elements I found annoying. Actually the whole Bali sequence or the fact she hooked up with someone. I had hoped the outcome would be that she’s content on her own but no – she jumps right into the next marriage. It made me question most of the rest. Not sure, if you know what I mean. I’m not saying there’s no happiness in marriage – not at all but the way she wrote about her freeing herself – I just expected more.
But I would really love to see Bali. 🙂
I wonder how I would like it if I read it again.
You’re not the last, I haven’t read it and don’t intend to. Watched part of the movie but couldn’t finish. As a matter of fact, I did listen to the audiobook of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and maybe one of the few who didn’t like it. So i suppose no more EG for me. So on this note, and since we are so close to the big day, Merry Christmas to you and yours, Litlove, and may the New Year bring you all the best!
I’ve not read this for fear of the sick making side of it – it’s like when I read someone’s online dating profile and they say that the most deep and inspirational book they ever read is something by Paulo Coelho. So this is another of those books where I think you’ve done the hard work your very amusing write up is the closest I need to get to it.