There has been buzz around Eat, Pray, Love...but not buzz in the circles that I frequent. I'm talking about buzz in the Oprah book club crowd. At least, I think that's where it was. Anyway, it was out there, in spiritual journey book-land, and I only heard mumblings...like feeling a slight tremor from an earthquake 10,000 miles away. I saw it at the bookstore, and rolled my eyes. "I'm not reading that crap," I thought to myself. And then, of course, my book club chooses it for the July reading. I had already "scheduled" Ulysses for July, so the choice of books was odd in a few ways. Firstly, I was glad that it wasn't a thicker, denser book that was chosen. I could not have sloshed through both Ulysses and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I knew that EPL would be light reading, so in that sense I wasn't too upset. But secondly, I knew that it would create this weird force...to read two books so dichotomously opposed to each other...maybe there would be an explosion - but hopefully not in my head.
I'll start out by saying that by page 40, most of this review had already begun spewing - yes, spewing - out, like a volcano out of control. The basic plot is the following: Gilbert has gone through a messy divorce and decides to embark on a year long journey (paid for by the book advance she gets to write a story about trip) to explore pleasure and devotion (or something like that) in three countries. She will eat in Italy, live in a guru-following community in India, and visit a Balinese medicine man and fall in love in Indonesia. I don’t think that I need to say that I disliked this book. In fact, I have so many things to criticize about it, that I don’t know where to start. Within the first five pages of this book, I compulsively began to roll my eyes. Oh geez, I thought, 300+ pages of this?
Firstly, Gilbert needed an editor. If she had an editor, s/he should have been fired immediately. The amount of unnecessary bullshit and description was distracting. For example, Gilbert decides that she wants to learn Italian. She’s in this self-discovery mode in which she realizes for the first time in her life (so she says) the idea that she can pursue her own interests. Rather than just say, I always wanted to learn Italian, she has to go into the following description:
“For years, I wished I could speak Italian – a language I find more beautiful than roses – but I could never make the practical justification for studying it…What was I going to do with Italian? It’s not like I was going to move there. It would be more practical to learn how to play the accordion. But why must everything always have a practical application? I’d been such a diligent soldier for years – working, producing, never missing a deadline, taking care of my loved ones, my gums and my credit record, voting, etc. Is this lifetime supposed to be only about duty? In this dark period of loss, did I need any justification for learning Italian other than that it was the only thing I could imagine bringing me any pleasure right now? And it wasn’t that outrageous a goal, anyway, to want to study a language. It’s not like I was saying, at age thirty-two, ‘I want to become the principal ballerina for the New York City Ballet.’ Studying a language is something you can actually do.” (pg 23-24).
She then goes on to explain the pleasure of learning Italian:
“Every word was a singing sparrow, a magic trick, a truffle for me…I became one of those annoying people who always say Ciao! Only I was extra annoying, since I would always explain where the word ciao comes from. (If you must know, it’s an abbreviation of a phrase used by medieval Venetians as an intimate salutation: Son oil suo schiavo! Meaning: “I am your slave!”) Just speaking these words made me feel sexy and happy. My divorce lawyer told me not to worry; she said she had one client (Korean by heritage) who, after a yucky divorce, legally changed her name to something Italian, just to feel sexy and happy again.”
I just wanted to shout: LIZ! You like Italian? You want to learn Italian? SFW!-Just get to it already! After all, was it really that impractical anyway? She’s a writer who travels often to cover stories, etc. And since it was her idea to write this book before setting off on the journey, her decision to learn Italian probably influenced her decision to go to Italy. If she had pursued Russian or Chinese or Swahili, this book might not have had an Italy chapter.
This brings us to my second criticism: the fact that the book was conceived of before the journey. Isn’t it convenient that EVERYTHING that happens to her is so PERFECT that it fit right into the story. Seriously: do people like Richard from Texas in the Ashram (with his "down-home" wisdom) and "Luca Spaghetti" really exist in the real world? I doubt it. Another example (again, with too much description): “Later in the day, I found a library. Dear me, how I love a library. Because we are in Rome, this library is a beautiful old thing, and within it there is a courtyard garden which you’d never have guessed existed if you’d only looked at the place from the street. The garden is a perfect square [Kristin’s Question: is there any square which isn’t perfect? I mean, if something was an imperfect square, wouldn’t it, by definition, not be a square, but rather a rectangle? Just asking], dotted with orange trees and, in the center, a fountain…I found a seat under an orange tree and opened one of the poetry books I’d purchased yesterday. Louise Glück. I read the first poem in Italian, then in English, and stopped short at this line: Dal cento della mia venne una grande Fontana… ‘From the center of my life, there came a great fountain…’ I set the book down in my lap, shaking with relief.” (pg. 39). Isn’t that just perfect? Isn’t it just perfect that in Bali a few years before her trip, she met the medicine man that she would visit again, and he read her fortune and said that she would come back. Now, if I was STUPID, I would say (in trippy, spaced out, new-age voice) “Wow. Like, he was totally right. He completely saw what was going to happen to her. Isn’t that such a miracle?” No, it wasn’t. The medicine man told her she was going to come back, so she pitched a book to some publishers about her taking a trip back to Indonesia. Not a miracle. Gilbert is also hyper-aware of the reader and the fact that she is writing a book. She interjects alternative titles, stops in the middle of thoughts and says, “I know this is going to sound x, but…” This is confused and complicated as the book is written in the present tense, as if she actually wrote the thing during her travels, and then came back afterwards and put in stuff that could only have been known after the fact.
Throughout the book, it seemed that she was trying to deliberately be cute and endearing, which only aggravated me. Almost every other sentence seemed like she was trying to make friends with the reader, to have childish enthusiasm for everything, which only came across as lame and ridiculous. A friend recommends a pizzeria in Naples that he considers the best pizza in town. What is Gilbert’s reaction? “I found this a wildly exciting prospect, given that the best pizza in Italy is from Naples, and the best pizza in the world is from Italy, which means that is pizzeria must offer…I’m almost too superstitious to say it…the best pizza in the world? …I love my pizza so much, in fact, that I have come to believe in my delirium that my pizza might actually love me, in return. I am having a relationship with this pizza, almost an affair.” Really? I’m going to be honest – at that point I thought to myself, Liz, maybe you really do need to start taking your medicine again, because this is getting on my nerves – YOU are getting on my nerves. Is there a medication for being excessively hyperbolic? Because if there is, will someone please get her a prescription?
In the beginning of the book, when she is having a breakdown because she hates being married, and she is sobbing on the bathroom floor at 3 a.m. (as all reviews of this book are obligated to tell you), she decides to pray. “What I said to God through my gasping sobs was something like this: ‘Hello God. How are you? I’m Liz. It’s nice to meet you.’ That’s right – I was speaking to the creator of the universe as though we’d just been introduced at a cocktail party…In fact, it was all I could do to stop myself from saying, ‘I’ve always been a big fan of your work.’” Oh, aren’t you sooo cute Gilbert? ARRRGGGHHH! Just writing this review is making me infuriated at this poppycock!
On top of attempting to be endearing, she is also extremely apologetic. The easiest example I can give is the following: “What happened was that I started to pray. You know – like, to God. Now, this was a first for me. And since this is the first time I have introduced that loaded word – GOD – into my book, and since this is a work which will appear many times again throughout these pages, it seems only fair that I pause here for a moment to explain exactly what I mean when I say that word, just so people can decide right away how offended they need to get. Saving for later the argument about whether God exists at all (no-here’s a better idea: let’s skip that argument completely), let me first explain why I use the word God, when I could just as easily use the work Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu or Zeus…For some reason why I pray, I do not address my prayers to The Universe, The Great Void, The Force, The Supreme Self, The Whole, The Creator (etc.)…I have nothing against any of those terms. I feel they are all equal because they are all equally adequate and inadequate descriptions of the indescribable. But we each do need a functional name for this indescribably, and “God” is the name that feels the most warm to me, so that’s what I use. I should also confess that I generally refer to God as “Him,” which doesn’t bother me because, to my mind, it’s just a convenient personalizing pronoun, not a precise anatomical description or a cause for revolution. Of course, I don’t mind if people call God “Her,” and I understand the urge to do so. Again – to me, these are both equal terms, equally adequate and inadequate.” (pg 12-13). She is clearly going out of her way not to offend any of her readers. This contriteness crops up occasionally throughout EPL, and as always, I just want to shout, GET ON WITH IT ALREADY!
Not only do I not like the book itself, I do not like Gilbert. Because of the nature of this book, I’m not sure if I should say that I don’t like Gilbert as a narrator, or that I don’t like Gilbert the person. It’s a tough call. But whichever, I can’t stand her. She is obviously the type of person who thinks she is cute, endearing, that everyone likes her – the type of person who believes that she is the kindest, nicest, funniest, sweetest person you could ever meet. She tells us straight out, (again, in typical over-detailed fashion) “I can make friends with anybody. I can make friends with the dead. I once made friends with a war criminal in Serbia, and he invited me to go on a mountain holiday with his family. Not that I’m proud to list Serbian mass murderers amongst my nearest and dearest (I had to befriend him for a story, and also so he wouldn’t punch me)…but I’m just saying, I can do it. If there isn’t anyone else around to talk to, I could probably make friends with a four-foot-tall pile of Sheetrock.” (pg. 41) She is probably also the type of person who needs everyone to like her…the type of person who will obsess over why one particular person doesn’t think that she’s the greatest person on earth. I’ve known people like her, and in case you couldn’t guess, THEY REALLY GET ON MY NERVES. And I’m not trying to be rude when I say this, but is Gilbert as ‘learned’ as she tries to project? She is constantly quoting gurus, yogi masters, Sufi texts, Catholic saints and mystics, etc. etc., but instead of it coming across as someone who is intimately acquainted with the texts of various world religions (like the Joseph Campbell was), she comes across as someone who got a book of Religious Quotations and Anecdotes from Around the World and used it generously. It just didn’t feel genuine. And that, I would say, is in contrast to the rest of the book. As much as she thoroughly annoyed me, she did seem genuine in all her exuberance and exaggeration…lame and ridiculous, yes, but it didn’t seem like a put-on. And that at least made her less frustrating than if it had come across as fake. Because if there is any type of person who would probably get on my nerves more than someone like Gilbert is someone who pretends to be someone like Gilbert.
One last comment on Gilbert/EPL: regarding her marriage/divorce, on page 12, she tells us: “The many reasons I don’t want to be this man’s wife anymore are too personal and too sad to share here. (pg. 12). Really, Liz – you tell us about your masturbating (pg 287 for those who are into that sort of stuff), but the reasons you want a divorce are too personal? I’m just saying…
While sifting through the reviews at amazon.com, I was amazed that while the negative reviewers criticized Gilbert and the book (self-absorbed, annoying, aggravating, “relentless drivel,” immature, etc.), the positive reviews almost always included an attack on the negative reviewers: they're just jealous, they're just traditional soccer moms who couldn't understand, they're religious nuts who are offended by Gilbert's not searching for Jesus, etc. etc. The positive reviewers also seem to take offense that the haters are dissing Gilbert personally by not liking her book. As in, "Nobody forced you to pick up the book! Good for Gilbert in finding happiness! You shouldn't knock that." So, here's my disclaimer: I'm not criticizing Gilbert's journey, her decisions, her emotional state, her depression, divorce, whatever. I'm criticizing the book she was paid to write. Ok, maybe I'm a little jealous of the all-expenses-paid trip around the world - I'd take one of them if someone wanted to give it to me. But that had nothing to do with why I didn't like the book.
Additionally, these positive reviewers seem to think that because it's a personal story, no one has a right to criticize it. Here is an analogy: if I drew circles on the wall with marker and called it a work of art and tried to sell it to a museum, and you said my artwork was a piece of crap, well, that's your prerogative, as I put my spiritual circle drawing in the public sphere. You put something out in the public realm, you are open to criticism about the merits of your work. (As in, if you hate my blog and think that I'm stupid, you're permitted to think that, to tell me so, and to write about how and why I'm stupid on your own blog...so long as you're not misrepresenting what I said, or lying about me, or defaming my character, etc. - and I have the right to delete any of your nasty comments from my blog should you choose to leave any.) I am permitted to say that Denise Richards is a horrible actress who ruins every movie that I have ever seen her in. I don't care if her acting is a spiritual expression. Maybe she's a nice person (she seems relatively normal on her reality show), but I can still say she's a bad actress.
In the same way that Denise Richards utterly annoys me, Elizabeth Gilbert utterly annoys me. Maybe she's a nice person. She says she can make friends with anyone, and maybe if I knew her she would make friends with me. I'll be the first to admit that I am easily annoyed by people. This is a character trait that I recognize and probably should work on with my therapist. But there are certain types of people that I just have no patience with. I recognized Gilbert as one of those people (at least her narrative and writing style) by, oh, page 10.
I promised that I would come to this book with an open mind. I tried - I really, honestly did. But before the end of my first day of reading, I knew keeping an open mind would be more challenging than Gilbert's meditating with mosquitoes. I kept saying to Shawn, "Maybe I shouldn't be so judgmental. Maybe I'm just being an Oscar the Grouch about this thing." But you know what? Sometimes Oscar the Grouch was right (he really was the critical thinker in the bunch). For a long time, it was difficult for me to write on this blog about books I didn't like, and to be honest and vocal about the fact that I didn't like them. I didn't want to offend someone who might genuinely have enjoyed the book. But I'm so over that now. If you liked this book - good for you. I don't understand, but good for you.
And p.s. – I did NOT appreciate the pathetic attempt at an R.E.M. joke on page 208 of EPL. It was so bad, in fact, that I will not repeat it here.