Eat, Pray, Love
Posted by nliakos on April 26, 2012
by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006, Viking)
Probably, most people have already either read this book or seen the movie. I myself saw the end of the movie on some airplane going somewhere (Paris 2010?), but I somehow didn’t get around to seeing the rest of it, or reading the book, until now. I loved it! A delicious read.
It’s a memoir of (mostly) a year during which the author visits first Italy, then India, and finally Indonesia in an attempt to reclaim her Self and her life after some personal crises which have left her in a pretty bad state. (Actually, it’s difficult to understand how she managed to continue her successful career as a writer while in such a state.) (Yes, I know: we would all like the opportunity to travel around the world for a year without having to work…. on the other hand, Gilbert is a writer; she financed her trip with an advance for the book she would write about it; and she really bared her soul in this book, which you couldn’t get me to do for all the pasta in Italy.)
I loved each part of the book. In Italy, Gilbert gains back the 30 pounds she lost after her marriage ended, and she lovingly describes each meal (“They have only two varieties of pizza here–regular and extra cheese. None of this new age southern California olives-and-sun-dried-tomato wannabe pizza twaddle. The dough…tastes more like Indian nan than like any pizza dough I’ve ever tried. It’s soft and chewy and yielding, but incredibly thin….Holy of holies! Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yummy, chewy, salty pizza paradise. On top, there is a sweet tomato sauce tht foams up all bubbly and creamy when it melts the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and the one sprig of basil in the middle of the whole deal somehow infuses the entire pizza with herbal radiance….” p. 80) until your mouth waters. And I teach in an intensive English program here in Maryland, so I really loved the description of her placement in Italian classes at the Leonardo da Vince Academy of Language Studies: she takes a placement test, hoping to be placed in Level Two (anything but Level One! That would be too humiliating!). She is ecstatic when she is actually placed in Level Two, but when she gets to class, “it becomes swiftly evident that these are not my peers and that I have no business being here because Level Two is really impossibly hard. I feel like I’m swimming, but barely. Like I’m taking in water with every breath. The teacher…is going way too fast, skipping over whole chapters of the textbook, saying “You already know this, you already know that…” and keeping up a rapid-fire conversation with my apparently fluent classmates. My stomach is gripped in horror and I’m gasping for air and praying he won’t call on me. Just as soon as the break comes, I run out of the classroom on wobbling legs and I scurry all the way over to the administrative office almost in tears, where I beg in very clear English if they could please move me down to a Level One class. And so they do.” p. 42 (Too bad this doesn’t happen more often where I teach, where students are more likely to beg to move up than they are to move down. Oh, well.)
Gilbert’s four months (and 36 chapters) in Italy are up before I am ready to move on, but on she (and I) go to India, where she plans to stay for a few weeks in an ashram and then travel around some. She ends up staying the entire four months in the ashram. As she has studied yoga and meditation before, she is not in Level One, so to speak, and before the four months are up she experiences some pretty mystical events and meets some wonderful people. She describes her frustrating attempts to clear her mind for meditation, reminding me of the conflict between the left brain chatter and the right brain bliss (cf. Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, which I read but forgot to blog about). She writes about her battle with a chant she instinctively abhors but which eventually helps her along her path. She writes about her friendship with “Richard from Texas,” a very funny guy, and how the people in the ashram seem to understand her better than she understands herself.
Thirty-six chapters later, she goes to Bali, where she hopes to find an elderly healer whom she met years before. However, she doesn’t remember where he lives and knows no one in the country. As soon as she gets there, she realizes she should have done her homework first; but all’s well that ends well, and she finds her healer, who eventually (after some embarrassing moments) remembers her and offers to teach her. She also becomes friends with a woman healer, Wayan, who lives with her daughter and two adopted orphan girls, and meets Felipe, a Brazilian divorcé with whom she has a torrid affair. The book actually has a happy ending.
I have to comment here on the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. A few years ago, I read What Is the What by Dave Eggers (another book I read but forgot to blog about), which reads like a memoir but is called fiction because it contains dialog that its subject, Valentino Achak Deng, could not possibly have remembered accurately. When I read it, I felt annoyed by this because I couldn’t be sure if the events described were also made up. I mean, if it’s fiction, anything goes, right? Well, Eat, Pray, Love is called “an intensely articular, sensible, moving and funny memoir of self-discovery” in the book jacket blurb, but it is full of dialog the author couldn’t possibly have remembered unless she had recording every conversation she had. So, is it fiction? Did she embellish it–just a little bit, perhaps? (I’ve wondered the same thing about John McPhee’s many portraits of people he has spent time with; they include many lines of dialog. I actually asked McPhee once how he did that. He doesn’t record his interviews, he assured me; he takes voluminous notes. He must be a court stenographer in his free time.)
Well, be it fictionalized or not, I really enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love–so much so that I was already planning to read it a second time as I was reading it the first time. For my purposes here, I’ve categorized it as nonfiction, and I hope that is correct. I want to believe everything in it.