Elizabeth Gilbert's follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir called Committed, will come out in January, and according to Motoko Rich in the Times, Gilbert "knows that some knives may be out for her" as she promotes the new book.
Subtitled A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, Committed tells the story of what happened when Gilbert and lover Jose Nunes — called Felipe in Eat, Pray, Love — tried to enter the United state after their courtship in Bali. They were both divorced, and neither wanted to marry again, but they were told marriage was the easiest way for Nunes to gain legal residency. The book's press release says,
Having been effectively sentenced to wed, Gilbert and Felipe spent the next ten months wandering haphazardly across Southeast Asia waiting for the U.S. government to permit them to return.
During this time, she tackled her fears of marriage by studying it intensely, trying with all her might to discover through historical research, interviews, and personal reflection what this stubbornly enduring old institution actually is. Committed tells the story of one woman's efforts to make peace with marriage before she enters its estate once more.
We've criticized Gilbert plenty of times, and some of the "knives out" for the new book may be ours. I should say that every time I write about Gilbert, several commenters rise to her defense, and it's clear that Eat, Pray, Love has inspired many people. As many problems as I had with it, I did find it calming, especially since Gilbert argues that lasting happiness is available to anyone, even those who have suffered personal setbacks and depression. But Gilbert also undercuts her own claim, probably unconsciously, by presenting herself as a supremely special and lucky person. In a Times review, Jennifer Egan puts her finger smack on my least favorite part of the book:
[M]y one mighty travel talent is that I can make friends with anybody. 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 half-modest admission — "everybody loves me," she seems to be saying, "but it's just a trait, a talent like any other" — has always rubbed me the wrong way. Partly it's just because I can be kind of shy and awkward, and "making friends with anybody" is certainly not one of my talents. But partly it's because, as Egan points out, Gilbert's charm and "personal power" make it seem like a foregone conclusion that everything will go well for her. Her difficult divorce notwithstanding, the world seems full of people who are eager to help her, and it's no surprise that she finds fun in Italy, enlightenment in India, and the perfect man (Nunes) in Indonesia. Gilbert once said, "I had an easier life than [my sister] did because I had an easier personality and it was easier for people to be sweet to me," and Eat, Pray, Love made me feel like Gilbert's life was easy because it was "easy for people to be sweet to her." What was I supposed to learn from that?
But life in Committed may not be as simple. Gilbert tells Rich that she had to scrap an entire 500 page draft because of "a clash of two voices" — the "chatty, witty" one of Eat, Pray, Love, and one that was "more sober and considered and confident and mature." The finished book may well reflect more of the latter voice, especially given what Gilbert has said elsewhere about her marriage. In a Big Think interview, Gilbert said,
You know, Eat, Pray, Love ends on a very romantic note because it ends within the first two months of a very romantic relationship, right? And so, for me, now, I'm 5 years into that relationship so it's always sort of funny to me when people come up and they're… and they still have… just finish the book and they still have this very starry-eyed idea like, oh lovely, you found this very romantic relationship, you know. And that very romantic relationship has now evolved into a marriage, you know, which, like, everybody else's marriage, is complex.
She also said,
[O]ne thing that's been really interesting to me about doing all this research about marriage is just realizing how the expectations that we have burdened in this institution with, at this point in history, are staggeringly huge. [...] Back in the 1920s, there was a survey that asked college women what they wanted in a partner and they listed all these virtues, you know, reliability, honesty, decency, morality, you know. And somewhere down around 6 or 7 on the list came love and passion. These things showed up sort of low on the list. Prudence was sort up high, you know. And then, in the 1970s, they ask those questions again to women and, you know, the very first thing on the list is, like, love, you know, love and connection and intimacy and then, you know, the other stuff they weren't really paying very much attention to. And now, it's even worse ‘cause they ask this question and they say they want a man who will inspire them everyday. [...] I would never sit down with a young woman and say to her, lower your expectations as a piece of advice for life. [...] But that's a good piece of information to know. Because we shouldn't walk around, thinking that this is how people have always thought about marriage or that this is what people have always expected out of their marriages.
Gilbert certainly isn't the first to say that contemporary people have extraordinarily high expectations of marriage. But to her credit, she doesn't present this as an easy solution to relationship problems, or claim that women should lower their standards. And she clearly doesn't think of her relationship as perfect — she seems to be acknowledging that what she once called an "almost ludicrously fairy-tale ending" has evolved into something more, well, real. So it's reasonable to expect that Committed won't be a self-satisfied brag-fest on how marriage is easy because everybody loves her, but rather a meditation on a complex institution that has burned her in the past. I'll sheath my knife, for now.
Eat, Pray, Love. Then What? Get Married. [NYT]
Elizabeth Gilbert's Follow-Up To 'Eat, Pray, Love' Coming In January 2010 [LA Times]
Elizabeth Gilbert Shares Her Thoughts On Modern Love [Big Think]
The Road To Bali [NYT]