Eat, pray, wed

Nm Khan May 23, 2010

It comes as no surprise that Elizabeth Gilbert — author of the uber popular Eat, Pray, Love coming soon to your screen with Julia Roberts in the lead — has a thing for research.

Even in her enjoyable memoir, aspects of her self-actualisation, self-angst, self-indulgence are picked apart and put into perspective. Mind you, it’s her perspective. My perspective is that it’s rather over-the-top. Take, for instance, the time in her first marriage when she contemplated having a child. She spent “two frantic years interviewing every woman I could — married, single, childless, artistic, archetypically maternal” in a bid, I suppose, to put things in perspective.

Then the marriage didn’t work and her life went into a downward spiral, her angst leading her to conclude that marriage is a prison. Out of her divorce was borne the idea of going to find herself during a year spent in Italy, India and Indonesia, which resulted in Eat, Pray, Love. More than wanting to know the nitty gritty of the subject she takes on in her writing — how does one maximise pleasure in Italy, (for God’s sake woman, just enjoy the damn gelato and get on with it) — Gilbert is drawn to wayward wanderers.

Her short story collection The Pioneers is, well, self explanatory followed by The Last American Man, a biography on naturist Eustace Conway who gave up the comforts of life to live in a cave, complete with animal skin for clothing. So the writer on wayward souls becomes one herself in Eat, Pray, Love, finds a man much like her, Felipe, in Bali and they both decide to live happily ever after, not married. Because they “had sworn with all our hearts to never, ever, under any circumstances, marry.” Except that she found herself faced with a dilemma involving Felipe and US immigration and instead of writing indignant op-ed pieces in typical Pakistani fashion, she decides to confront her tormentor, the institution of marriage.

And this is the premise for Committed: A skeptic makes peace with marriage, an insight into the institute formerly seen by the author as a prison sentence, complete with, as The New Yorker wrote “[Gilbert’s] neuroses”. Gilbert fans will be disappointed if they’re expecting an Eat, Pray, Love Part Two but this does not suggest that Committed is bad per se. Since she’s a thorough researcher, who wants to get up close and personal with her subject, even when it’s yoga and why she’s not able to do it in Rome, there are large segments that drone on about aspects of marriage that veer towards the very dull.

But her own ruminations — on her relationships are written in the style the author is so beloved for — and are, in instances, funny. Her encounter with Hmong women in Vietnam and the ensuing discussion was a particularly poignant point. Her sort-of-encounter with a Buddhist monk at an internet café in Laos was not. The problem with Committed is the back and forth between her bantering on the personal and the researched pieces on say how marriage laws changed from the Old Testament to the New Testament. It doesn’t quite work.

It’s a memoir with a large side order of socio-cultural factoids on marriage, much of which is interesting, but hard to engage with—especially when one knows what the outcome is going to be. A big soppy happily ever after.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 23rd, 2010.