Thursday, January 31, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love--Book Review

I received this book as a gift. I was intrigued by its subtitle: "One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia." Those are three countries I might not have thought to string together in one sentence. Okay, maybe as part of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego as in "Name three countries that begin with the letter I".

As I read Elizabeth Gilbert's introduction, I began to wonder if this was going to be a mushy New Age-y kind of book. Ms. Gilbert allayed my fears somewhat by noting that she, too, is skeptical of those Westerners who write effusively of finding Enlightenment in some mystical Eastern religion without doing the hard work necessary. She refuses to name her Guru or her Guru's Ashram to protect her privacy and the privacy of her pupils who came to study at the Ashram. (I suspect that it would be easy enough to figure out who and where from the hints Ms. Gilbert sprinkles through the book.)

First, though Ms. Gilbert sets the scene. She is married to a man she loves and respects, they have just bought the perfect house in the perfect New York suburb, she has a successful career as a freelance writer, she and her husband are discussing having children-so why is she on the floor of her bathroom sobbing every night? Why is she so desperately, so profoundly unhappy?

Not particularly religious, she finds herself praying to God and the answer comes, "Go back to bed, Liz." (Hey, a practical God! I like that!) She does and manages to sleep. Her problems aren't resolved, but crying on the bathroom floor won't help, either.

Ms. Gilbert's divorce is acrimonious and prolonged. During that time she enters-or, rather, plunges into an intense relationship with "David." This relationship is another emotional roller coaster but David does introduce Ms. Gilbert to his Guru, who becomes her Guru. Ms. Gilbert begins her discipleship.

She also decides to learn Italian for no other reason than she loves the way the language sounds. And it's something she does merely for her own enjoyment. The idea of living in Italy for a time begins to germinate.

As part of a freelance writing assignment, Ms. Gilbert joins a "yoga tour" that includes the island of Bali in Indonesia. The tour guide introduces her to a Balinese healer, who reads her palm and tells her that she will lose all her money, but regain it quickly, and come to live with him in Bali and teach him English. Sure enough, shortly after her return home, her divorce is finally over and she has given up most of her financial assets. Her relationship with David is also crumbling. Ms. Gilbert decides there is no better time to move to Italy for four months. And, as the Balinese healer predicted, she is able to strike a deal with a publisher, receiving an advance in return for a book about her adventures.

And what adventures they are! Ms. Gilbert is blessed with an extraordinary ability to make friends despite language barriers. She is open to new experiences, willing to leave the tried and true, the comfortable. Her writing, especially about herself, is wry and witty. She discusses serious subjects but doesn't take herself too seriously--most of the time. I was annoyed by her "knee-jerk" liberalism, her unnecessary jibes at conservatives, Republicans, and President Bush. Fortunately, those references were few.

Ms. Gilbert's theology, however, is suspect. She has read something of the great Christian mystics, but it's not clear that she has a good sense of the context of their writings. she refers to Pius that as Pius XI, admittedly a minor error, but somewhat annoying. More problematic, she makes an offhand statement equating the Taliban and Fundamentalist Christians, which is just plain intellectual laziness. Granted there are some Fundamentalists who hold extreme views (Fred Phelps comes to mind), but when was the last time you heard of any "Fundies" decapitating infidels? And broadcasting the video over their Internet?

She does caution about the dangers of false yogis--and that there are plenty of them willing to take advantage of naive Westerners. Initially enthralled with Bali and Balinese culture, she recognizes there are snakes in this paradise, too. There is also love. After nine months of celibacy, Ms. Gilbert finds a man who wants nothing more than to spoil her; pamper her. And she has finally grown sure enough of her Self, that she can accept his gift.

It's ironic-and Ms. Gilbert admits this--that the decadent, consumerist Western civilization is what allows Ms. Gilbert to travel and live abroad to find herself. she recognizes the advantages she has as a Western woman that her counterparts in India and Bali do not enjoy. She has learned a lot about herself during this year, but comes away with (and promotes) the idea that all paths lead to God, so it's okay to cherry-pick the methods that "work" for you as an individual. She also believes that by achieving and maintaining her own miner core of peace and happiness, she will spread that to others (kind of like a viral infection). There is no sense of a "Communion of Saints," or that we have any obligation to our fellow humans. (How does one reconcile the violence of abortion with inner harmony? How do you justify treating humans lower than animals? Or women lower than men?)

The danger of this book is that it makes self-fulfillment sound too easy. Dropout for a year, gorge yourself in Italy, live in an Ashram in India for four months, find a good healer in Bali and -Bingo!" you've got a best-selling book, a boyfriend who is wealthy, exotic, and madly in love with you. a very seductive message if you're a restless young adult, looking for something to believe in.

According to Ms. Gilbert's website, Eat, Pray, Love has been optioned for a movie. I'm not sure how this will work, since much of the book involves her thoughts and feelings which usually don't translate well to screen. And will the audience sit through her agonizing divorce?

On the March Hare scale: 2.5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks, mostly because of the weakness of theology and philosophy. MS. Gilbert is an entertaining and good writer. This book might be a good choice for a young adult christian reading group, especially if they can examine how the differences in Eastern vs. Western religious traditions affects our view of the relationship between humans and between humans and the natural world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pope Pius XI reigned as Pope from February 6, 1922, and as sovereign of Vatican City from 1929 until his death on February 10, 1939. Ms. Gilbert is a seasoned writer and would not write a book without checking her facts.