When I was in high school, I read How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and I was like, “eh.” Ever since then, every time I’ve read stories and books about women awakening to their strength and becoming empowered in their womanhood, I’ve had exactly the same reaction (and to be fair, I have the same feelings about the bildungsroman in general, regardless of gender). Except once.
It’s been hard for me to put my finger on what I love so much about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, or what I love so much about Elizabeth Gilbert in general. Here are my top three books: Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski, and Antoine de Saint-Éxupery’s The Little Prince — stories that, at heart, are about atrocities and devastating loss and how people or characters cope with the aftermath.
But then again, Eat, Pray, Love is some shade of the same story, isn’t it? Gilbert built a life for herself that was a farce, it fell apart on her head, and she wrote a book about how she coped with it. A lot of young women have absolutely no grasp on what their identity is, and a lot of young women sacrifice their identity as an individual to their identity in a relationship at a really young age. That in itself is a loss, and a loss I was going through when I read the book. Gilbert’s meditation on her inability to act with integrity as an individual within the confines of her relationship with her ex-husband rang true.
For that matter, I can imagine what a hole it leaves in you to feel like you can never just perform the basic human functions it takes to sustain our bodies, so I can imagine women with eating disorders finding a sense of glee and possibility in the idea of going to Italy and just eating wonderful food. I can imagine how depleting it can be to be giving yourself over to the care of others without having time or money to take care of yourself, so I can imagine women who are caretakers reading the book and taking hope in the Gilbert’s narration of meditation and prayer. There was so much in Eat, Pray, Love that was replenishing just to read that I understand why it was such a hit.
It is a supremely white-lady book. There is privilege abound in Gilbert’s journey, and that’s why the Elizabeth Gilbert Aura is my big guilty pleasure. She’s WASP-y verging on GOOP-y. And here I have to be careful, because it’d be clear enough white, middle-class guilt for me to act as if it’s hard for me to own the identity of having grown up in a white collar family in the suburbs. It’s not a plea for sympathy, but just a confession when I say I feel dirty for taking the immense amount of satisfaction that I do from Gilbert’s books, her TED talk (with which I don’t even agree!), her interviews, or the tour of her ridiculous Manic Pixie Dream Home that’s currently for sale. I watched the whole thing. And I loved it.
There’s this to say for Gilbert: her writing is genuinely solid. Eat, Pray, Love is written such that it’s easy to get swept away in Gilbert’s adventures and easy to relate to her as a narrator and protagonist. Committed is insanely well-researched. She’s capable of attaching sympathy not only to herself, but to others as well, and she demonstrated that in Pilgrims. None of it is hard to read, but I think that as simple as her stories are, at heart, she doesn’t need to be experimental or challenging. She’s brilliant at communicating the experience of being in foreign places. And god, she’s just so charming.
I’d hate to be the person who disparages or dismisses “chick lit,” especially when I have a distaste for its reflection — masturbatory dude lit that asks its readers to sympathize with the struggle of being a misunderstood white guy (soooo much literature). Maybe reading chick lit and dude lit, at least the best of it, is another way for us to understand the diversity of human beings. But I’ll keep making sure it’s not the only thing I read.