Assessing Eat, Pray, Love.

Reading between the lines.
July 3 2007 7:28 AM

Summer Reading

Should you read the best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love?

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I have to admit that I felt a twinge of embarrassment on the subway when I opened Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, which is currently No. 1 on the New York Times paperback best-seller list. It is precisely the sort of inspirational story of one woman's journey to recovery that I would never expect myself to pick up in a bookshop. Were I to summarize the plot, many discerning and skeptical readers would immediately put it back on the shelf. Eat, Pray, Love begins with Gilbert in her early 30s, crying on the floor of a bathroom of a big suburban house because she realizes that she does not want to have a child; she divorces her husband, falls dramatically to pieces, and then travels around the world. Along the way, she finds god in an ashram in India, big plates of pasta in Italy, and triumphs over her severe depression. Doesn't it sound awful? It is not.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

Admittedly, the memoir is constructed with a certain amount of artifice. As one gathers from her catchy title, Gilbert orchestrates her recovery in three parts: She goes to Italy to experience pleasure, India to explore spirituality, and Indonesia to find something she calls balance. In real life, of course, one doesn't often get to structure one's emergence from a black period quite so neatly. But the artificiality of the venture doesn't matter. If the journey is fake in certain ways—too willed, too self-conscious—within all the fakeness a real evolution occurs. The rubric of travelogue gives Gilbert, an insightful, disarming, joyous writer, enough time, enough quirky situations and settings, to dramatize a fascinating and turbulent period of life. Her true engagement with the outside world, her tiny observations about everything from the Balinese response to divorce to Italian men eating cream puffs after watching sports, reinvigorate the more conventional arc of her recovery story. She takes the shopworn narrative of depression and instills it with liveliness, which is in itself such a strange and refreshing endeavor that we end up liking her.

Advertisement

Before Gilbert's marriage fell apart and she began her epic travels, she led a fairly conventional life: She had a husband, two homes, a successful writing career, and was contemplating having a child. All of this structure, this safety, breaks down rather abruptly, and she seems, as she relates it, to fall exotically out of regular life.

While she is in Rome, Gilbert decides to be celibate since she has careered from one relationship to another since her late teens. As she puts it: "How many different types of men can I keep trying to love, and continue to fail? Think of it this way—if you'd had ten serious traffic accidents in a row, wouldn't they eventually take your driver's license away? Wouldn't you kind of want them to?" Abandoning her breakfasts of yogurt and wheat germ, she eats so much gelato and pasta that she happily gains 15 pounds. This is the pure, concentrated idea of Italy that she has come to find. But the most telling anecdote from this phase of her trip is that she goes to a lingerie store and buys herself huge amounts of exquisite lingerie that no one will see. It is in these rogue details, in the accidental glimpses of recovery, that the more interesting story of the book is told. Beneath the official itinerary of redemption, Gilbert gets better slowly, and she is a smart enough writer to show us how.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.