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.
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.
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.