I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert for a class last semester. I got to choose a nonfiction work to read and write a craft essay on. I have to say that I hated the book and don’t understand why it is a bestseller and now being made into a movie. It took me all of spring break to read it. Normally I’m a pretty fast reader.
So I debated on posting what I really think about the book but I think some balance is needed. It’s famous now but everyone I’ve talked to about it hated it. It’s so in my face right now with all the posters and whatnot. Now my beloved Borders is sending me emails about it.
Below is the review I wrote for the class. Mind you, this is my personal opinion. You may love the book and that’s ok. These are the reasons that I didn’t like it and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of explaining why.
Indulgence, Insult, and Ineffectiveness: A Review of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat, Pray, Love is a nonfiction work, chronicling journalist Elizabeth Gilbert’s attempt to find herself by traveling to Italy, India and Indonesia. I approached this novel with a great deal of excitement. From the dust jacket I expected to find a path, some kind of entry point that I could use in my own life and writing. Gilbert was in her thirties and had all the outward appearances of success. She was married, had bought a large home, had a successful career and was trying to conceive, yet she was horribly unhappy. Although I haven’t achieved this level of success, I know what it is like to experience seemingly inexplicable misery. I expected Gilbert’s book to peel back the layers and expose the root cause of her unhappiness. Instead, her work strays from self-exploration into a tour guidebook, preaching essays, and unbelievable experiences with the divine.
The separation between the author and reader happens early on in the work. Her foreword lays out the construction of the book instead of letting the reader discover it for themselves. It would’ve been more effective, and felt less constrained, if she had waited until the end of the book to disclose this information. The book consists of three sections, each dedicated to a part of her journey. She searches for pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and balance in Indonesia. The work is further divided into 108 “tales,” the same number of beads on a japa mal, an Eastern strand of beads used for prayers. This format, although symbolic, creates a halting narrative especially at the beginning of the book. In the first tale, Gilbert is already in Italy where she is enjoying good food and learning Italian with her “tandem exchange partner” Giovanni. She has made the decision to remain celibate during her year of travel, but has a moment where she thinks she may have a sexual encounter with Giovanni. It doesn’t happen and the tale ends with her offering thanks to God. Here is where the problem comes in with the narrative. In an attempt to bridge this experience with one that happened during her marriage, she begins the second tale:
And since I am already down there in supplication on the floor, let me hold that position as I reach back in time three years earlier to the moment when this entire story began – a moment which also found me in this exact same posture: on my knees, on a floor, praying. (Gilbert 9)
For me, this came off as a strained introduction. It may have been more effective if she would’ve just begun with the story of the second tale instead of trying to weave them together. It also seemed like Gilbert was hand-holding in a sense, providing a lot of setup in order for the reader to follow the narrative. This not only impacted the narrative, but it insulted my intelligence. I enjoy works that play with a non-linear timeline, but generally do not need this amount of background information to figure out what is going on. This information could easily have been built into the narrative. Another issue I have with this kind of writing is that it refers to the story. To me, when an author refers to the story, it pulls me right out of the narrative. It reminds the audience that they are, in fact, just reading a story. This strips the narrative of something crucial, the feeling that the reader is participating in some way.
Gilbert artfully laces scene with distinct and relatable images. In this way she is able to capture the beauty of her surroundings while remaining accessible to those who haven’t been to Europe. In the first tale, she describes walking home with Giovanni:
Now it is midnight and foggy, and Giovanni is walking me home to my apartment through these back streets of Rome, which meander organically around the ancient buildings like bayou streams snaking around shadowy clumps of cypress groves. Now we are at my door. We face each other. (Gilbert 9)
This scene is very rich and gives the narrative a sense of tension. Yet, there are times that the tales seem to move away from scene and into essay. For example, tale three is an essay on God and what God means to her. There is no dialogue or action. The richness and tension created in the scene with Giovanni disappears. Although she is talking about praying at the end of the second tale, it is confusing when she inserts this essay in the section devoted to pleasure. The essay seemed out of place and unrelated to the surrounding scenes. These kinds of essays show up throughout the work and are simply expositions on how she feels about certain topics, like God, having children, and family. The essays seem pull the reader out of the narrative and come off as self-indulgent.
Gilbert also uses some very provocative images as seen above. Despite this, there are times when the work becomes over-reliant on pop culture references. These references seem lazy and unsophisticated. In tale sixteen, she personifies depression and loneliness as “Pinkerton Detectives” (Gilbert 46). The analogy is overworked and carried throughout the entire tale. When Gilbert is visiting Bologna she says “a city so beautiful that I couldn’t stop singing, the whole time I was there: ‘My Bologna has a first name! It’s P-R-E-T-T-Y” (Gilbert 98). When she meets a man named Ian in Indonesia, she describes him as “very good-looking, in a kind of Sting-meets-Ralph-Fienne’s-younger-brother sort of way” (Gilbert 267). Gilbert has skill in conveying images, so I am unsure why she would rely on this sort of description. Not to mention, these sorts of references date the book.
Some of Gilbert’s language choices seem odd, vulgar or even insulting at times. When she visits Venice, she states how she couldn’t ride the gondola alone because it was “rather like the idea of humping up a hill all by yourself on a bicycle-built-for-two” (Gilbert 99). The word humping is strange and creates an unintended image in the reader’s mind. In a section where Gilbert is describing the mafia’s involvement in Palermo, she states it has “its hand down everybody’s pants” (Gilbert 113). During her time in Indonesia, she has a cat that lives in the house she is renting. She describes him as “moan[ing] crazily . . . like he’s having Vietnam War flashbacks” (Gilbert 235). I realize this is meant to be funny, but I don’t see the humor in comparing a cat to a combat veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She even details conversations with a friend in Indonesia, where they call each other “homo” insultingly. She also makes remarks about overweight people. I realize that people talk this way in real life, but writing it in a memoir creates assumptions about her character that I don’t believe she intended.
There are many issues with the creation of character in this work. Throughout the work, we find Gilbert sobbing about something whether it is her marriage, the subsequent rebound relationship, or loneliness. To me, she came off as weak because of it. She describes a scene in which she is riding her bicycle home after the medicine man she is visiting gives her a meditation called “the four brothers.” She claims:
On my way through the forest, a big male monkey dropped out of a tree right in front of me and bared his fangs at me. I didn’t even flinch. I said, “Back off, Jack – I got four brothers protecting my ass,” and I just rode right on by him. (Gilbert 253)
This sort of reaction seems too absurd to be believed. Yet her work is full of these sorts of occurrences. The second section of the book, devoted to her trip to India, describes experiences of communicating with God during meditation. She describes seeing blue energy, souls and auras. These meditation experiences took up a great portion of this section and as such I was completely removed from the narrative. I just couldn’t understand why she was going on about these things and for so long. It seemed that she was bragging, which relates to the privilege she experiences. Gilbert is struggling emotionally but is able to leave all responsibility and travel for a full year. It seems that, instead of contending with the reality of her situation, she ran away from it. It doesn’t seem as though she grows as much as a character. Granted, she finds peace at the end of the novel but she got to live a dream life for a year and that’s what got her there. This makes her transformation less compelling. Everything she tries, she succeeds in. Never does she fumble, make a mistake, or leave a loose end. This further reinforces the feeling that her experience is unrealistic.
Gilbert has skill with language and scene. It seems that the trouble comes when she diverges from this and tries to force her work into essay. It feels like, in order to come up with the number of tales to fit her structure, she had to insert essay. I believe she was also trying to come off as relatable by using pop culture references, but it only made her language seem lazy. She would have been more successful if she had recognized and focused on her strengths. There’s also the problem of “who cares?” With everything coming easily to her, the book lacked any grit or tension. As a result, I wasn’t sympathetic to her character and was bored with it. The main lesson I can apply in my own writing is not to fall in love with a particular structure. Gilbert doesn’t seem to see when this structure doesn’t work, which is frequently. She would’ve done herself a great favor by remaining flexible and allowing the work to flow more organically.