Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love

Yesterday afternoon, I finished Elizabeth Gilbert's book, Eat, Pray, Love. This book was recommended to me highly by a friend earlier this year and had been on my reading list for a while. A couple weeks ago, another friend mentioned in her blog how she disliked the book and found the author narcissistic. This led to a flurry of comments on the blog post, with the commenters divided squarely into "love it" and "hate it" camps. After seeing this exchange, I immediately moved the book to the top of my reading list.

I count myself in the love it camp. Of the three memoirs that I have read this year (The Glass Castle and The Spiral Staircase being the other two), I liked Eat, Pray, Love by far the best. I think there are several reasons for this. First of all, I identified with the author. She was a person who seemingly "had it all" at a young age yet found herself deeply depressed. I also suffered a major depression in my late 20s when I supposedly had it all, so I related immediately. I can see how people who don't have first-hand experience with depression might find the author "spoiled" or "a whiner" for not being satisfied with all her money and success and her fancy house, but as someone who has lacked serotonin for a prolonged period of time I could totally understand how she felt.

I also deeply appreciated how the author could assess herself and the people and situations around her with balance, honesty, and good humor. This stands in marked contrast to the other memoirs I have read recently. The author of The Glass Castle painted her crazy-as-a-loon, child-abusing parents as "brilliant" and "artistic" and she painted herself as even more brilliant and artistic, as evidenced by the "fact" that she rose above her chaotic childhood and found success in New York City without anyone else's help. Now that struck me as narcissistic! The author of The Spiral Staircase tells a more complex story and does so with what usually is a pleasing, philosophical voice, but even she paints the characters in her life as one-sided and tends to blame all her misfortunes on other people while giving herself all the credit for her success. Elizabeth Gilbert's willingness to give equal time to her frailties and her good points without being either self-pitying or self-aggrandizing, and her willingness to see the other people in her life as equally multi-faceted, provided a breath of fresh air by comparison.

The Glass Castle and The Spiral Staircase both tended to have an "I was there, now I'm here, and I am so great for rising above my past" feel about them, while Eat, Pray, Love struck me as being more about the journey itself and what the author learns along the way than about the starting and ending points. Elizabeth Gilbert is not just telling you where she wound up and describing for posterity how she got there so much as she is asking you to come along and share the ride with her. The reader not only hears about Gilbert's experiences but also is invited to think about how what Gilbert learned through those experiences might inform the reader's own journey. She has some wonderful insights and provides some real nuggets of wisdom along the way. I therefore thought that there was a universal focus in this book that was lacking in the other memoirs I have read, which really have been all about the authors.

In conclusion, I thought that Eat, Pray, Love was a very good book, especially for a memoir (which, as you no doubt have discerned, is a genre with which I struggle). I feel uplifted for having read it. I am looking forward to reading Gilbert's upcoming book, which will tell about her life after she returned from Indonesia. I will be especially interested to see if the wild success of Eat, Pray, Love has gone to her head, or if instead she will be able to retain the grounded perspective and delightful voice that made Eat, Pray, Love such a pleasure to read.


Barbara said...

I'm a big Eat, Pray, Love fan, but it is definitely one of those books people either love or hate. I felt like she gave me the privilege of seeing the world from her eyes for that year and it was a great trip, every one of the 3 stops. I even ate at her favorite pizza place in Naples and was not disappointed. Maybe one has to be hopelessly romantic to get this book, I don't know.

I didn't realize she was writing another book. I will look forward to reading it when it comes out.

Reya Mellicker said...

Eat, Pray, Love - love it or hate it, there seems to be no other reaction.

I stopped at page 136. I was so sick of her whining.....and yes I have plenty of experience with depression.

Taste is truly a participatory experience. There is no such thing as a "great" book. I hated Moby Dick, too.

Adrianne said...

Reya, I was wondering if you would chime in on this one. ;-)

I always find it so interesting to see who likes or doesn't like a book, and for what reason.

I just finished reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton a few weeks ago as part of a small book club conducted by e-mail. I really liked the book overall, despite the fact that the main characters were very frustrating. I don't think anyone else really liked it much, though. Maybe I just have low standards?!?

What I liked most of all, though, was doing a book club by e-mail -- the process of writing about my reading experience helped me to appreciate the book more fully and to identify my feelings about it with more precision. We're doing Anna Karenina next.