Early on in “Eat, Pray, Love,” her travelogue of spiritual seeking, the novelist and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert gives a characteristically frank rundown of her traveling skills: tall and blond, she doesn’t blend well physically in most places; she’s lazy about research and prone to digestive woes. “But my one mighty travel talent is that I can make friends with anybody,” she writes. “I can make friends with the dead. . . . If there isn’t anyone else around to talk to, I could probably make friends with a four-foot-tall pile of Sheetrock.”
This is easy to believe. If a more likable writer than Gilbert is currently in print, I haven’t found him or her. And I don’t mean this as consolation prize, along the lines of: but she’s really, really nice. I mean that Gilbert’s prose is fueled by a mix of intelligence, wit and colloquial exuberance that is close to irresistible, and makes the reader only too glad to join the posse of friends and devotees who have the pleasure of listening in. Her previous work of nonfiction, “The Last American Man” (she’s also the author of a fine story collection and a novel), was a portrait of a modern-day wilderness expert that became an evocative meditation on the American frontier, and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002.
Here, Gilbert’s subject is herself. Reeling from a contentious divorce, a volatile rebound romance and a bout of depression, she decided at 34 to spend a year traveling in Italy, India and Indonesia. “I wanted to explore one aspect of myself set against the backdrop of each country, in a place that has traditionally done that one thing very well,” she writes. “I wanted to explore the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two.” Her trip was financed by an advance on the book she already planned to write, and “Eat, Pray, Love” is the mixed result.
At its best, the book provides an occasion for Gilbert to unleash her fresh, oddball sensibility on an international stage. She describes Messina, Italy, as “a scary and suspicious Sicilian port town that seems to howl from behind barricaded doors, ‘It’s not my fault that I’m ugly! I’ve been earthquaked and carpet-bombed and raped by the Mafia, too!’ ” Later, she sees a Balinese mother “balancing on her head a three-tiered basket filled with fruit and flowers and a roasted duck — a headgear so magnificent and impressive that Carmen Miranda would have bowed down in humility before it.” Gilbert also takes pleasure in poking fun at herself. At an Indian ashram, she winningly narrates the play of her thoughts while she tries to meditate: “I was wondering where I should live once this year of traveling has ended. . . . If I lived somewhere cheaper than New York, maybe I could afford an extra bedroom and then I could have a special meditation room! That’d be nice. I could paint it gold. Or maybe a rich blue. No, gold. No, blue. . . . Finally noticing this train of thought, I was aghast. I thought: . . . How about this, you spastic fool — how about you try to meditate right here, right now, right where you actually are?”
“Eat, Pray, Love” is built on the notion of a woman trying to heal herself from a severe emotional and spiritual crisis; Gilbert suggests more than once that she was at risk for suicide. But where she movingly rendered up the tortured inner life of Eustace Conway, the gigantically flawed subject of “The Last American Man,” Gilbert has a harder time when it comes to Gilbert. Often she short shrifts her own emotional state for the sake of keeping the reader entertained: “They come upon me all silent and menacing like Pinkerton detectives,” she writes of feeling depressed and lonely in Italy, “and they flank me — Depression on my left, Loneliness on my right. They don’t need to show me their badges. I know these guys very well. We’ve been playing a cat-and-mouse game for years now. . . . Then Loneliness starts interrogating me. . . . He asks why I can’t get my act together, and why I’m not at home living in a nice house and raising nice children like any respectable woman my age should be.”
But wait a second — Gilbert is a New York journalist who has spent the prior several years traveling the world on assignment. In her chosen milieu, it would be unusual if she were married and raising kids in a house at age 34 — by her own account, she left her husband precisely to avoid those things. I’m willing to believe that Gilbert despaired over having failed at a more conventional life even as she sought out its opposite — complications like these are what make us human. But she doesn’t tell that story here, or even acknowledge the paradox. As a result, her crisis remains a shadowy thing, a mere platform for the actions she takes to alleviate it.
What comes through much more strongly is her charisma. On a trip to Indonesia well before her year of travel, she visited a Balinese medicine man who read her palm and proclaimed: “You have more good luck than anyone I’ve ever met. You will live a long time, have many friends, many experiences. . . . You only have one problem in your life. You worry too much.” He then invited her to spend several months in Bali as his protégé. At another point, Gilbert petitions God to move her husband to sign their divorce agreement and gets a nearly instant result; later she devotes a love hymn to her nephew, whose sleep problems, she learns the next week, have abruptly ceased. Putting aside questions of credibility, the problem with these testaments to Gilbert’s good luck and personal power is that they undercut any sense of urgency about her future. “Eat, Pray, Love” suffers from a case of low stakes; one reads for the small vicissitudes of Gilbert’s journey — her struggle to accept the end of her failed rebound relationship; her ultimately successful efforts to meditate; her campaign to help a Balinese woman and her daughter buy a home — never really doubting that things will come right. But even Gilbert’s sassy prose is flattened by the task of describing her approach to the divine, and the midsection of the book, at the ashram, drags.
By the time she reaches Indonesia, Gilbert herself admits that the stated purpose of the visit has already been accomplished. “The task in Indonesia was to search for balance,” she writes, “but . . . the balance has somehow naturally come into place.” There would seem to be only one thing missing — romance — and she soon finds that with a Brazilian man 18 years her senior who calls her “darling” and says things like, “You can decide to feel how you want to, but I love you and I will always love you.” Gilbert acknowledges the “almost ludicrously fairy-tale ending to this story,” but reminds us, “I was not rescued by a prince; I was the administrator of my own rescue.”
Rescue from what? The reader has never been sure. Lacking a ballast of gravitas or grit, the book lists into the realm of magical thinking: nothing Gilbert touches seems to turn out wrong; not a single wish goes unfulfilled. What’s missing are the textures and confusion and unfinished business of real life, as if Gilbert were pushing these out of sight so as not to come off as dull or equivocal or downbeat. When, after too much lovemaking, she is stricken with a urinary tract infection, she forgoes antibiotics and allows her friend, a Balinese healer, to treat the infection with noxious herbs. “I suffered it down,” Gilbert writes. “Well, we all know how the story ends. In less than two hours I was fine, totally healed.” The same could be said about “Eat, Pray, Love”: we know how the story ends pretty much from the beginning. And while I wouldn’t begrudge this massively talented writer a single iota of joy or peace, I found myself more interested, finally, in the awkward, unresolved stuff she must have chosen to leave out.