I’m about to say something I’m very embarrassed to admit, and I hope that you will find it in your heart to allow me to write a memoir column despite my terrible faux pas. Until this week, I had never read Eat, Pray, Love. That’s right, despite having read hundreds of wonderful and awe-inspiring memoirs in my lifetime, I somehow avoided reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 best-selling memoir for the past four years. I wouldn’t say my avoidance was entirely unintentional. I tend to have an automatic aversion to books that become very popular because I am generally disappointed after hearing that Oprah has given her seal of approval. This is not to say that Oprah doesn’t make good literary choices, it’s just that by the time Oprah has gotten to it, most of the free world has already decided how wonderful the book is, and my own thoughts become garbled in a mess of magazine clippings and talk show appearances.
To avoid the attack of the hype, I wanted to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent memoir, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, before Oprah got her influential little hands on it. And to give Gilbert’s follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love an all-encompassing and fair review, I decided to reach back into the bookshelves of seemingly every woman in 2006, and take a stab at Eat, Pray, Love.
For those of you who have been living in outer space, or, like me, are prone to running away when a book starts receiving too much buzz, Eat, Pray, Love is a memoir documenting the thoughts of recently divorced thirty-something, Elizabeth Gilbert, as she learns to rebuild her life through food, meditation and creating meaningful relationships while traveling the world. After getting over my jealousy pangs that Gilbert has the financial means to drop everything and go for a year-long jaunt to Italy, India and Indonesia, I was able to take some of Gilbert’s spiritual observations to heart and really get into the book in that “very special Lifetime movie” sort of way. I can understand how Gilbert’s independence and proactive way of turning her own life around would appeal to women of all ages, and the gentle, stream-of-consciousness flow of her writing reads almost like letters from an old friend. But reading Eat, Pray, Love left me wondering: How in the world is Elizabeth Gilbert going to write a book that tops this one?
Reading my mind, Gilbert addresses this question very modestly in the prologue of her newest book, Committed. The author promises her readers that she was not expecting or intending the success that consumed Eat, Pray, Love, and was baffled when she saw the book being categorized as “chick-lit.” “We write only the books that we need to write, or are able to write,” says Gilbert, “and then we must release them, recognizing that whatever happens to them next is somehow none of our business.” Gilbert makes no promises that Committed will be as successful as Eat, Pray, Love. By throwing this statement right out in the open, Gilbert put me at ease, allowing me to relax. If the author of the book isn’t concerned with topping herself, why should I worry about it? Sure, I bet it would be nice for her if the book was profoundly successful, but it’s refreshing to see someone writing a follow-up book because she has something to say, rather than to recreate the success, money or interest that the first book generated.
After reading Gilbert’s blunt prologue, I was not surprised to see that although Gilbert’s life is highlighted in the book, Committed reads very differently than the smooth, wandering narrative of Eat, Pray, Love. And although I still consider it to be a follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love, because it starts right where the first book leaves off, I can’t quite call Committed, which has a more academic, authoritative tone, a sequel. In the new book Gilbert offers devoted readers an update on her romance with Felipe, the Brazilian heartthrob she fell in love with in Eat, Pray, Love. At the start of Committed, Felipe and Gilbert are living a perfectly happy life, splitting their time between the United States, Bali and Australia, where Felipe’s adult children live. (If you haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love, Felipe is eighteen years older than Gilbert, who is thirty-seven at the start of Committed). The couple is satisfied with their living arrangements, bouncing back and forth between continents as often as most people would visit a neighboring town. Both Felipe and Gilbert were married and divorced, and had no interest in proving their already strong commitment with a public or legal display of marriage. That is, until Felipe is arrested when trying to travel into the United States to visit Gilbert, because his frequent national traveling has made the Department of Homeland Security suspicious. In order to ever return to the United States again, the U.S. government must give Felipe permission to marry Gilbert, although the decision could take months to be approved.
Stranded and unable to return to the United States, Gilbert and Felipe travel to Asia, living in cheap hotel rooms while Gilbert exhaustively researches anything she can on the topic of marriage in order to convince herself that marrying Felipe is the right decision. To some, getting married to a partner you are sure is your soul mate may be a no-brainer, but like Gilbert, I am wary of marriage. Unlike Gilbert, I am twenty-five and I have never been married, but I resent the fact that love must be put into legal terms before it is considered legitimate. My boyfriend and I have been in a loving, committed relationship for four years and live together, although I reluctantly share the word “boyfriend” with a high-school girl who has been dating a boy in her band class for one week. My boyfriend and I are not planning on having children anytime soon, and although we have talked about it, neither one of us can figure out any unselfish reason for the two of us to get married except that maybe I could be on his excellent health insurance plan. To me, this is the most unromantic idea I can possibly think of, which makes me dislike the concept of marriage even more.
Gilbert, who discovers the underwhelming power of the world “boyfriend” while trying to get the Department of Homeland Security to release Felipe at the airport, has similar reservations about marriage, particularly after her devastating divorce from her first husband. In fact, before Felipe was arrested, the couple exchanged their own vows of commitment, but agreed never to get legally married. After Felipe’s run-in with the government, however, the couple realizes that marriage is the only way to allow them the freedom to travel to and from the United States unhindered.
Committed is part memoir and part cultural studies book, giving detailed information on the past and present situation of legal marriages throughout the world. Gilbert points out that marrying for love instead of necessity is a fairly new concept in history, and many countries still believe a marriage has nothing to do with the romantic compatibility of both partners. Gilbert researches a variety of marriage customs and arrangements, the most amusing being an ancient Roman marriage tradition that is still practiced today. When a man asks a woman to marry him in some Roman neighborhoods, he serenades her at her window and the entire town joins in, just like a real-life movie musical. There are singing parts for the man, the woman, and the townspeople, who must each collectively beg Rome not to “be an idiot tonight” and allow these two individuals to find love, Broadway style.
Committed provides a fascinating look at the history of matrimony, as well as some interesting statistics that might presage a successful marriage. According to a Rutger’s University study cited by Gilbert, marriages that unite partners who are college-educated, who do not have children at home, who get married later in life, and who are of a similar ethnic and social background are the least likely to end in divorce.
Although the history sections of Committed provide an all-encompassing review of love and marriage throughout the ages, I preferred the narrative portions of the book that focused on Gilbert’s relationship with Felipe. Even though I hoped there would be more anecdotes about how all this research on marriage was directly affecting the couple, I enjoyed Committed more than Eat, Pray, Love, which seemed to read only on one dreamy frequency throughout the entire book. Committed seems to be a slightly different animal, because there is an informative nonfiction element to the book that balances Gilbert’s passive, come-what-may attitude with something more substantial.
By tearing apart the constructs of marriage and analyzing them piece by piece, Gilbert carefully reconstructs the aspects she believes in, creating a legal marriage that works perfectly for them. Although I am currently no closer to marrying my boyfriend than I was before reading Committed, Gilbert has taught me that if I ever do decide to tie the knot, I should only say “I do” under my own terms.
Books mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.