Two weeks ago I heard Liz Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, speak locally. Sponsored by Asheville’s wonderful Malaprop’s Bookstore, the speech was moved to a large auditorium at the University of North Carolina-Asheville to accommodate the crowd of several hundred (mostly) women. Let me just say that before reading EPL I was convinced I wouldn’t like it. I read it to understand what moved other people about her spiritual journey, not because I expected to be moved myself. I assumed I would find her spiritual exploration shallow and ungrounded.
Instead, I became a fan. The fact that I was a recently divorced woman when I read it may have had something to do with my reaction. I’d also like to think that I’m a discerning enough reader simply to appreciate her good writing. The girl can write, after all. But really, I loved that she let us in: she spoke of her neuroses and self-absorption and self-doubt and anger and fear and hope and love with an honesty that allowed me to sink and rise along with her emotions. Through her love of travel I flew with her to Italy and India and Indonesia, experiencing the different pace and sights and smells of each country.
So now she’s written another book: Committed, A Love Story. Actually published a while back, this book tour celebrates the paperback edition. Readers of EPL will remember that she finally succumbs to loving again near the end of her stay in Bali, having fallen for an older Brazilian man, also divorced, who gently courts her.
She does not, however, succumb to the temptation to marry. Quite the opposite, as we find out in this book. She and her beloved, Felipe, vow never to marry each other, having each been torn up by their experiences of divorce. They establish a two-continent relationship which is going just swimmingly until Homeland Security steps in and arrests and deports Felipe for misusing his temporary visas. Thus begins a journey for the two of them, internal and external, toward a legal marriage that will be recognized by the government and allow them to continue their relationship.
Liz, still being the lovable neurotic we met in EPL, can’t just consider this issue of marriage in isolation. She decides to plunge into months of research on the subject, its meaning across cultures and history, its meaning among her own family and friends, and its meaning among its promoters and detractors. The book, then, weaves the author’s all-consuming struggle to face her own marriage demons with the intellectual task of understanding what marriage actually is.
I found the result to be an enjoyable read, mixing fascinating cultural and historical tidbits, disturbing statistical reports and provocative philosophical questions with her own sweetly self-absorbed love story. It does not carry the emotional punch of Eat, Pray, Love (maybe because I’m not considering marriage any time soon?), but it does provide a good ride across southeast Asia and the history of marriage. And it saves me reading books like Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History, from which she liberally quotes.
So, to the talk then. Gilbert charmed us. She read a bit from the book and then opened the floor to questions and responded with that kind of off-hand, self-deprecating humor that one might use in a group of women friends. She easily laughed at her own foibles, the bizarre reality of her overwhelming success, seeing Julia Roberts play her on the big screen, and the terror of making her TED Talk. At the same time, she spoke of her work as a writer with reverence. She admitted to having chosen this work as a vocation when, as a teen, she lit a candle, promising to devote her life to the careful work of writing. Gilbert still feels writing to be a “holy calling”.
She described her routine of getting up early, around 5 am, and devoting the first part of her day to writing and research. Then, by about 1 pm, she says she isn’t good for much else but staring at a wall for the rest of the day. But while she believes in the hard work of staring at a blank page every single day, she also knows that the Muse makes a difference. “People say that the work is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, and while that may be true, you can’t dismiss that 1%. That would be like throwing out the pearl for the oyster shell.”
When writing about yourself, I suppose it helps to be likable. And Gilbert is immensely that.